Friday, February 24, 2012

An Interview with a Nonconformist

Can you imagine giving up electronics entirely for a month? It sounds daunting; many might even say it is impossible today. But even within my lifetime (and I'm not even 25 yet), there was a time in which giving up electronics meant nothing more than turning off the TV and the stereo. For most of the twentieth century, kids were perfectly contented to entertain themselves by playing outside, playing board games, or building things. People communicated by telephone, by post, or in person. Most of the information you needed was stored in books. Of course, anyone reading this will agree that times have changed drastically. The many benefits of electronic devices today have rendered our old ways nearly obsolete. Though I am not suggesting that this be considered a problem, a question comes to mind. Have we now become so irrevocably attached to the digital world over the last twenty-or-so years that we couldn't take a step back and disconnect while remaining functional in society?

I discovered recently that a friend of mine, Sarah Kay, has a peculiar and fascinating family tradition. After listening to John Bytheway's talk on CD Turn Off the TV and Get a Life!, her family decided to take on a challenge. February was to be a month of no electronics (February was selected because it is the shortest month). I can only imagine how that would have been for me if my family had made a similar commitment when I was younger; video games were my life, and the prospect and having to go an entire month without playing games or watching TV would have been akin, in my disturbingly dependent mind, to being sentenced to a month in a third-world prison in violation of human rights. However, according to an article written by Sarah Kay's mother, their family decided on it collectively.

Sarah Kay is now in college and out of the house, but she has kept up the tradition at school. I decided to ask her a few questions to get a better idea of what this month is all about. Here are a few of her responses:
Me: What does your family call this month? 
Sarah Kay: No Electronics February, but that's kind of misleading. It's really more like No Electronic-Entertainment February. 
Me: When did you start this tradition? 
Sarah Kay: We started about nine years ago, around 2003, and we've done it every year since.
(At this point, I asked about the rules of No Electronics February. She gave me a considerable list that I won't try to quote here, but I'll try to summarize the important points. Basically, TV is off limits except for watching the Super Bowl. Email can be checked, and other websites may be visited, with discretion, for important purposes, but generally the internet is off-limits. In fact, at home this rule is more strict; any child wanting to use the internet must first get permission and have a very valid reason. Cell phones are only to be used for calling, not texting. Blogging is allowed, but Sarah Kay says she doesn't blog much. The use of computers as a tool for creative purposes, like photography or film-making, is permissible. Other than these, practically any use of electronics you can imagine is off-limits, including listening to music and watching movies)
Me: Have you broken any of your own rules this month? 
Sarah Kay: I've come close, but no. The hardest thing is going without music. I've had some really long projects to work on and they're hard to do in silence.
Me: What is the first thing you'll do in March that you can't do now? 
Sarah Kay: Listen to music all day!
(Sarah Kay also told me that at home her family usually throws a party on March 1 in which they binge on all the electronics they've missed, checking Facebook, watching movies, etc.) 
Me: Do you think that you could keep this up after the month is over? 
Sarah Kay: It would be very difficult. A month is hard.
Me: What are the benefits of No Electronics Month? 
Sarah Kay: You see acutely how dependent on electronics you have allowed yourself to become. You fill your time with (usually) more productive things. It really brings you back to the basics. 
Every February we read a lot more. We also try to get through all the board games in our closet during the month, so we spend a lot of time together. This month is a not-so-gentle reminder of what's really important.
It also makes you appreciate electronics more.
Me: Do you think everyone could benefit from this, and would you recommend it to others? 
Sarah Kay: Yes and yes, but I wouldn't force it on anyone. I think other people should do it because I don't think there's a better way than total abstinence to realize how dependent on electronics you are.
Me: After the month is over, do you have better control over your habits or worse? 
Sarah Kay: It's always better (after the initial binge). The yearly tradition is great because it takes about a year to really fall back into habits and February helps me start over. It's like a purge cycle.
During the interview, I really noticed that even though Sarah Kay said that No Electronics February was hard, she had no regrets or reservations in taking on the challenge. She pointed out often how great it is, and her responses to my last questions, about the benefits of giving up electronics, were very enthusiastic.

Critics might argue that giving up electronics limits our ability to accomplish many tasks today. Indeed, Sarah Kay showed in the interview that some things become more difficult without the aid of electronics, like socializing without texting. To this argument, however, I have two things to say: first, all things must be done with discretion. Sarah Kay's family had certain exceptions, already showing that it is not necessary to truly and entirely unplug to have a "no electronics" experience. If you feel that you will be fundamentally hindered by abstinence from texting, you can still limit or remove other practices and change your texting habits. Second, it may not be entirely a bad thing to make things more difficult on yourself once in a while. I've already written amply on this concept in my post Technology: Paths of Least Resistance.

I thought one of the most interesting parts of my discussion with Sarah Kay was regarding one of the exceptions. She said that the use of computers for film-making, graphic design, photography, and so forth is allowed. I commented that these things are, in the end, entertainment, and she said something that struck me as quite profound. According to Sarah Kay, the difference between those creative pursuits and, say, playing computer games, is that in the latter, the computer is entertaining you, whereas in the former, you are entertaining yourself using the computer as a tool. That certainly rings true to me.

The point of this post is not to convince everyone to unplug every February, but I hope that this example introduced you to some new ideas or viewpoints. If you do decide to try out the no electronics route, all the better. I'm trying to convince myself to right now.

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