Can You Unplug?

Photo by las-initially. Used under creative commons license.

Last Friday night, while I was sitting in my in-laws’ living room, one of the worst storms the greater Central and Northern Virginia areas have seen in quite some time came tearing through. I think it lasted all of 15 minutes, but it wound up being one of those “storms of the century” because of all the widespread damage it wound up causing.

Honestly, it was a pretty scary storm when you think about it because unlike tropical storms and hurricanes–which have plenty of warning–this was a “What the hell was that?!” type of storm. The result for us, locally, was that we were without power for nearly 48 hours, without cable for 72, and without internet access until after midnight the following Saturday (my wife’s iPad made a noise, she went to check it out and when she came back to bed and I asked her if she was okay, she said, “The Internet’s back up”).

I thought of writing an entry that chronicled my struggles through a non-tech world, but there were two problems with it: I’m on summer break, so me sitting around my living room complaining how freaking hot it is doesn’t make for good blogging; and I’m not very good at mimicking that old-time Civil War journal voice (“We crossed the border into Missourah this morning”). Plus, is it possible to write a post about having the power go out and the Internet go down without it coming out as a complete cliche?

Yes, I can honestly say how much I realized that I was pretty connected to and in some ways dependent upon technology, in a way that I didn’t realize when I was a young teenager and spent summers at a lake in New Hampshire with only a radio and maybe the daily newspaper (as well as stacks of Mad Magazines) as my sole sources of information. Then again, when I was a young teenager, there really wasn’t much of an Internet to speak of (not to the extent we have now), we were still in the era of the Zack Morris cell phone, and as much as I did try to follow current events, I never felt any panic if I missed a few days of campaign backbiting. I also don’t remember sleeping in an ocean of my own sweat every night.

But I did want to write something, and as I was sweating to death in the middle of Sunday night, the sound of my bare skin peeling off the leather sofa only mildly entertaining and therefore not able to distract me enough from my misery, I thought of a project that I used to have my Journalism I students do at the beginning of the year (sadly, since switching schools a few years ago, I no longer teach journalism, although I have been working elements of that curriculum into my regular English classes) called “Can You Unplug?”

The premise of the project is simple: in order to study our current media, we need to realize how much of it we truly consume, as well as how much we depend upon it. So, my students are asked to keep a two-day journal. The first day, they are to go about their normal business, but they are to take note of what they did. For instance, how often they texted or used their phones, were plugged into their iPods, surfed the internet, watched TV, listened to the radio, read books/newspapers. The second day, they are to do their best to go completely without anything electronic or digital (print media was allowable) and then journal the experience. The final entry in the journal is to be a piece reflecting on both, which tied into a class discussion on the topic (and I fully admit here that I swiped this from a college class project that was profiled in the Washington Post magazine years ago, so it’s not even my idea).

When I used this in my Intro to Journalism classes, which were predominantly populated by freshmen, I remember it seeming like a no-brainer of an assignment, and to make it easy on my students, I gave the short project a long-term deadline so that they had plenty of time to complete the journal (and obviously, the two days didn’t necessarily have to be consecutive, so there was some flexibility there). Plus, it was a classic “compare/contrast/reflect” task. Except … well, I learned a couple of things about what seem like no-brainers. First, I didn’t expect what wound up being very loud resistance from a couple of students. I was describing the project’s “unplugged” day to one class and I remember at least one or two kids yelling (yes, yelling) “I’M NOT DOIN’ THAT!” before I even had the chance to finish what I was talking about. Second, it took more effort than I thought it would to assure my students that no, they would not fail the assignment if they couldn’t make it a full 24 hours without all of their gadgetry because the journal was the important part.

Both of these, of course, stem from the usual problem that comes with anything as extensive as a project to high school students: they cannot see the forest for the trees, probably because they’ve been so conditioned by having every tree in the forest come with a rubric (seriously, it drives my advanced students nuts when, though I give extensive feedback, I put an overall grade on an assignment and don’t have a spreadsheet-like itemized breakdown). But I’m getting off of my point here, so I’ll move on because what came out of the experience in our class discussions and the journals of those who were mature enough to not yell at me when I assigned it, was that most of my students either didn’t have any idea how much they were attached to the gadgets in their lives; or they didn’t realize how noisy the world is.

That’s my favorite part, because I don’t think that many of us really pay attention to the barrage of noise that we’re greeted with upon entering a supermarket, or Target. We’ve kind of been conditioned to tune it out because we’re there to pick up granola bars or motor oil or maybe even both. I’ve considered bringing this one back, either in its original form or expanded to include something that uses research or technology for a final product (a student documentary, perhaps … or something similar) so that there is a creative investment beyond the observation and reflection. I’m not entirely sure what it will be, but if I do, I will definitely bring up this storm and my time spent sweating my ass off, completely unplugged from the world.

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