The Myth of the Disconnected Life

The new year is now well underway and many people have probably already broken the resolutions they made to disconnect from their digital devices more often and reconnect with the people and places immediately around them.

In reflecting on the year that has passed, there were moments that became highly symbolic of the need to disconnect. For example, we began 2011 with a YouTube video that went viral on January 14: security footage of a woman falling into a fountain at a Philadelphia mall because she was walking while texting. The year ended with another plea to disconnect from our devices: the National Transportation Safety Board called for a ban on all cellphone usage while driving.

A commercial that aired throughout 2011 for the Windows phone resonated with these concerns around when it is or isn't appropriate to use our phones. It shows people ignoring their children by staring at their phones; a woman getting married walks down the aisle while texting; joggers staring at their phones run into each other; people fall down stairs or sit in seats already occupied by someone else. All this mayhem is caused because people cannot look away from their phones. The commercial's tagline is an appeal to these cellphone users: "Be Here Now."

The call to disconnect was found in several best sellers of 2011 from Sherry Turkle's Alone Together to William Powers' Hamlet's Blackberry. Powers has since become emblematic of a movement called the "Digital Sabbath." Each Friday night, he and his family disconnect their computers from the internet for the weekend as a means to curb an ever-growing sense of information overload.

For Powers, who began these Digital Sabbaths while writing his book, the sense of "digital busyness" that comes with information overload typically leads to a lack of depth in the ways that we think and connect with each other.

When his family announced that they would be sacrificing internet connectivity for 48 hours every week, they received some angry responses from colleagues who were upset that they would be unreachable by email. However, for Powers, the cost of disconnecting was rewarded with deeper and more meaningful connections with his family.

Since the publication of Hamlet's Blackberry, many people have followed suit and dedicated time during the week in which they turn off, unplug and walk away from their mobile phones, email and Facebook accounts.

For advocates of the Digital Sabbath, the cellphone is the perfect symbol of the always-on lifestyle that leads to disconnection and distraction. It epitomizes the information overload that accompanies being tethered to digital media. Advocates of Digital Sabbaths note that if you are nose-deep in your smartphone, you are not connecting with the people and places around you in a meaningful way.

Ultimately, the Digital Sabbath is a way to fix lifestyles that have prioritized disconnection and distraction and seeks to replace these skewed priorities with sustained attention on the tangible relationships with those around us.

Yet, these are familiar arguments that have taken one form or another throughout the history of media. Plato argued that writing would disconnect us from the meaningful presence that comes with face-to-face interactions. The spreading of ideas across geographic distances - far beyond the body of the author - limited our ability to engage in meaningful dialogue and produce true knowledge.

Since Plato's diatribe against writing, few emerging media and technologies have been immune from the critique that they disconnect us from the people and places in our lives.

Digital media scholar, Erkki Huhtamo, offers one particularly apt example: at the turn of the 19th century in England, some people had become so immersed in their kaleidoscopes that they were completely disconnected from the world around them. The result can be seen in an early engraving depicting the "kaleidoscomania." The people are so "mesmerized by the visions they see inside the 'picture tube' that they do not even notice that other men are courting their companions behind their backs."

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In the century that followed, the bicycle fell under a similar critique. Churches condemned this new technological mode of transportation for disconnecting people from their local community and distracting them with the dangers of the outside world: the promiscuity promoted in places like the cinema and roadhouses. Soon thereafter, the automobile also received criticism about creating social distance and an acceleration of culture (quite literally).

Around the same time, in 1926, the Knights of Columbus Adult Education Committee set out to investigate another emerging technology: the telephone. Their meetings were dominated by questions such as, "Does the telephone make men more active or more lazy?" and "Does the telephone break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends?"

While historical comparisons are important to contextualize our culture's reaction to emerging technologies, there is something unique about our digital devices, especially the ones we have on us at all times like our smartphones. These technologies seem to offer a more compelling example for those who want us to disconnect from technology. As Sherry Turkle argues in her book Alone Together, connection to our devices assumes that we're disconnected from something, someone or somewhere else. This "always-on/always-on-us" screen, as Turkle terms it, is a space that pulls us elsewhere.

However, using "disconnection" as a reason to disconnect thoroughly simplifies the complex ways we use our devices while simultaneously fetishizing certain ways of gaining depth. Though the proponents of the Digital Sabbath put forth important ideas about taking breaks from the things that often consume our attention, the reasons they offer typically miss some very significant ways in which our mobile devices are actually fostering a deeper sense of connection to people and places.

Take, for example, the mobile storytelling projects that have emerged over the last few years. These projects seek to get us to engage with the multiple histories of a place by accessing them on our mobile devices and contributing our own stories of what that place means to us. As the designers of one project, [murmur], note, "The smallest, greyest or most nondescript building can be transformed by the stories that live in it. Once heard, these stories can change the way people think about that place and the city at large."

[murmur] began in Toronto and is now implemented in 12 cities worldwide. [murmur] places large green, ear-shaped signs with a phone number and location code on lampposts and street signs throughout the city. When callers dial the location number, they can listen to recorded stories and histories about the place at which they are standing. [murmur] also encourages the callers to record their own histories about the site.

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Promoting this kind of deeper context about a place and its community is something these mobile devices are quite good at offering. A person can live in a location for his or her whole life and never be able to know the full history or context of that place; collecting and distributing that knowledge - no matter how banal - is a way to extend our understanding of a place and a gain a deeper connection to its meanings.

Meaning is, after all, found in the practice of a place, in the everyday ways we interact with it and describe it. Currently, that lived practice takes place both in the physical and digital worlds, often through the interface of the smartphone screen.

A recent smartphone app, Broadcastr, is doing something similar by curating audio narratives about a place and letting users listen in and record stories about the location at which they are standing. In the coming months, Broadcastr will allow users to attach a variety of media to their location on the map, including photos and videos that can be organized into a walking tour of an area.

A related app by the Museum of London was recently launched that makes their collection of London-based paintings and photographs available, allowing users to overlay their physical location with an historical image. For instance, someone can stand on Queen Victoria Street, hold up their iPhone and see an image of the Salvation Army Headquarters crumbling to the ground after a bombing during WWII overlaid on top of the realtime perspective caught by the phone's camera.

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Even apps like Yelp and Foursquare offer a deeper context to a place than might be obvious. By offering user-created reviews and tips about a place, the idea of local knowledge is extended and offered broadly to those with an internet-capable mobile device.

While none of these practices may seem unique to our digital age - stories have been attached to place throughout history - the ability to connect innumerable narratives to a single site is something that other media haven't been able to effectively accomplish.

Beyond developing a deeper connection with places, using cellphones to foster deep connection with the people in our lives is a common, everyday practice. While it may come as a surprise to some, this is epitomized in the ways that teens are currently using their cellphones. Mobile media scholar Rich Ling's studies of teen cellphone use found that as texting increased among teens, internal group cohesion also increased. Though realtime voice conversations have dropped dramatically - a shift cemented in 2009 when, for the first time, cellphones were used more for data transfer than for voice communication - the significant increase in texting among teens has led to a stronger bond among small groups of peers.

Advocates of the Digital Sabbath have the opportunity to put forth an important message about practices that can transform the pace of everyday life, practices that can offer new perspectives on things taken for granted as well as offering people insights on the social norms that are often disrupted by the intrusion of mobile devices. We absolutely need breaks and distance from our routines to gain a new points of view and hopefully understand why it might come as a shock to your partner when you answer a work call at the dinner table. Yet, by conflating mobile media with a lack of meaningful connection and a distracted mind, they do a disservice to the wide range of ways we use our devices, many of which develop deep and meaningful relationships to the spaces we move through and the people we connect with.

Presented by

Jason Farman is the author of Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media. He is an assistant professor in American studies at the University of Maryland.

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