by Margaret Cabaniss
Show of hands: How many of you have considered shutting down your Facebook (slash-Twitter-slash-Instagram) account? How many of you have actually succeeded? Did it save your sanity and restore some balance to your life, or did you just end up feeling slightly out of sync with the world? Some combination of both?
I’m torn about the whole going-off-the-grid impulse — and if the number of my Facebook friends who threaten every other day to pull the plug is any indication, I’m not alone. On the one hand, in her recent London Review of Books essay, Rebecca Solnit completely nails the distance and dislocation that our modern forms of communication have (paradoxically) introduced in society:
Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the unnuanced sparseness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deep zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t recognize myself a bit here. How often do I check my phone when I’m waiting in line? (The better question might be, how often do I actually leave my phone in my pocket?) Heck, how many times have I checked Facebook in the course of writing this one measly blog post?
It always sounds lovely in the abstract to log off and really connect again — with others, with myself – but the reality is rarely so simple, as Helen Rittelmeyer can attest. She recently went on a sort of “reading diet,” cutting out anything that didn’t feel truly inspiring or worthwhile (so, you know, no Buzzfeed listicles or GIF-centric Tumblrs). After six months, she says she’s happy she made the change but admits it hasn’t all been roses:
I have learned…that unplugging from the zeitgeist makes it really hard to talk to people…. There are only so many times you can respond to someone’s well-intentioned conversation starter with “Sorry, I haven’t followed that story because it brought me no joy to do so,” or “I figured it wasn’t cosmically important for me to have an opinion on that, and since the topic didn’t interest me I didn’t bother to form one,” or “I have no idea what meme you’re talking about, because I used the time I was going to spend on Facebook to finish Boswell’s life of Johnson.”
You have no factoids to swap, because you no longer deal in factoids. No memes, no news bulletins, no hey-did-you-see’s. Topics not derived from the media should be safe ground, theoretically, but you’d be surprised how many of the reference points people use to understand their own stories come from stuff they’ve seen on Facebook or on TV. These days, socializing at a bar or browsing through Twitter, I feel like a time traveler from the 19th century. Or earlier.
Turns out that unplugging yourself, while potentially satisfying, doesn’t suddenly make the rest of the world unplug along with you, and that the connection we crave is often bound up in our very devices and distractions. I may learn more from cracking open that Civil War history I have on my nightstand, but I would miss deconstructing the latest episode of Breaking Bad with my friends on Facebook — and, silly as it may sound, those connections aren’t nothing.
Fortunately, we’re not talking about an all-or-nothing proposition here, but striking that balance can be tough (to put it mildly). So how do you do it? No, really — I want to know. How do you keep your devices from ruling your life, or distracting you from the important stuff, without chucking them entirely? And do read the rest of Solnit’s and Rittelmeyer’s essays; I’d love to hear your thoughts.