Lately, I’ve been experimenting with taking one day each week away from work completely. You might think this would be an easy task as there’s a “weekend” each week that allegedly offers up two full days of rest. And yet, as I work at home, the shiny big screen of the iMac beckons at all hours, and I am often in front of its white glow the first thing every morning and the last thing at night.
So, being that I am Jewish — though not very religious — I decided to shut down the computer each Friday night at sunset until Saturday at sunset, the traditional time of the Jewish Sabbath. I make exceptions when I need to get directions or check for a personal email. I still use my cell phone but try to limit it to personal calls only. While this day of technological rest can be a difficult routine, it has allowed me to stretch my time, spend more hours outside and be with people more in face-to-face settings.
And I’m not alone. The concept of a “Technology Sabbath” is becoming more widespread, both in religious circles and among bloggers and media people who are overwhelmed with the always-on nature of the broadband Internet and smartphones. And that overwhelming feeling is exacerbated by instant messaging, social networking and services such as Twitter, that allow us to do more informal communications electronically rather than in person.
Back in 2001, students at the Christian liberal arts school Seattle Pacific University took a week-long Technology Sabbath and only used technology for classwork. The Seattle Times reported that students started talking more in person rather than relying on frequent emails, played dodgeball instead of video games, and met in a “live chat room.” Could it be? “Chat” from mouths and a “room” with real walls?
As I started taking my own Sabbaths each Saturday, blogger/author Ariel Meadow Stallings was starting a public version of something similar called 52 Nights Unplugged (with its own blog, naturally), in which she planned to unplug from the Internet, DVDs and cell phone every Tuesday night for a year. According to her rules, Stallings allows herself to use a digital camera, iPod and receive phone calls.
After a New York Times article on taking “secular Sabbaths” mentioned her project, Stallings became a media sensation overnight, appearing on “The Today Show,” “ABC World News,” and in a story on CNN.com. Stallings has been amazed by the international interest in her project.
“The response from the mainstream media has genuinely shocked me,” Stallings told me via email. “I knew this was an issue amongst my fellow geeks (one person even calls it ‘Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder’), but it wasn’t until the media inquiries started rolling in that I realized this was a national issue and then an international issue. The story’s been picked up in the UK, Italy, Australia, Columbia…clearly, it’s not just a geek issue or even just an American issue.”
Stallings even set up a custom Ning social network for people who want to unplug regularly, and quickly got more than 300 people to join it from around the world. Perhaps it’s good to be plugged in so you can learn more about unplugging.
Those with a religious bent have an easier time finding a moral basis for their Technology Sabbath. There’s the passage from the Bible, from Exodus, that’s part of the Ten Commandments: “For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” For a Technology Sabbath, there’s a lot to disconnect: No work, no computer, no Internet, no phone, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Flickr, no FriendFeed, no text messages.
Joe Carter has mixed his love for technology and evangelical Christianity for years, as a blogger at Evangelical Outpost and web communications director for the Family Research Council. He just took a new job as managing editor for Liberty Wire, an online magazine that will launch in August. Carter wrote an eloquent story about becoming enthralled with technology and needing to take an Info-Techno Sabbath:
Am I the only one that has sung a hymn about spending eternity worshipping God and secretly believed that heaven must be an incredible bore? (No e-mail? No blogs? No YouTube?)
Carter was inspired by Kevin Miller’s book, Surviving Information Overload, to start taking one day off each week from technology, the media and the Internet. He tries to go from sundown-to-sundown (just like the Jewish Sabbath), and tells others to choose the 24-hour period that works best for them. And Carter tries not to be too strict about the rules.
“Because my problem is the information overload, rather than the technology itself, I turn off every device that works to force-feed me non-essential info,” Carter told me via email. “Some tools, particularly my computer and iPhone, are significant distractors so they are avoided completely. But others, such as TV and radio, can be used for other purposes. While I avoid NPR and cable news on my ‘Sabbath’ I have no qualms about listening to music in my car or watching a video with my family.”
I undertand the pull of a Sabbath for a religious person, but what about secular people who are media junkies — or who work in the media field? Isn’t it our jobs to be totally connected at all times just in case Microsoft drops its bid for Yahoo on a Saturday night?
“Those of us who work in media and technology (my job overlaps both) often make excuses for why we can’t disconnect from our devices,” Carter said. “But I suspect that we don’t have any more need to be tethered to our technology than any other types of business people or knowledge workers. The truth is that we don’t want to be disconnected, though we desperately need the break.”
One person I found through a Twitter query was Paul Wiggins, an assistant editor and web producer for Fairfax Community Newspapers in Sydney, Australia. Wiggins, 48, told me he goes completely without computers and his smartphone from the close of business Friday until Monday morning’s commute.
“During the six and a half weeks of annual leave time, the office cannot contact me,” he told me via email. “Getting away from computers helps folks to engage with their communities, which is what we are supposed to be all about…My house is in a wireless blackspot and I’d need to get wiring done to get broadband access.”
But Wiggins is far from being a Luddite, as you can see from this picture of him at work doing online editing. The difference between Wiggins and the rest of us overwired folks is that too much of our lives take place online, making it more difficult to disconnect.
Slowing Down the European Way
Not surprisingly, the idea of disconnecting is more ingrained in culture in Europe, where people have more work holidays than in the U.S. MediaShift associate editor Jennifer Woodard Maderazo, who recently moved to Barcelona, told me that most of her work colleagues in Spain and Europe had never heard of taking tech holidays because it’s a given that they wouldn’t do work when away from their offices.
“Most people I asked about tech holidays said something along the lines of ‘Spain isn’t like the U.S; people know how to disconnect,’” she said. “In other words, they don’t have to take a tech holiday because they shut all of that down and relax after work. One executive doesn’t carry a Blackberry and says his friends and colleagues don’t either. While he still checks email even when on ‘regular’ holidays, he only does it once a day and at a certain time of day, to ensure that it doesn’t cut into his personal time with family and friends. The exception of course would be early adopters like bloggers and people who are on social networks, who are definitely not the majority here.”
When Maderazo put out a call on Twitter for more connected types, she found that people were already trying to disconnect at least one day per week — if not more. Noelle Sadler, an American who works at an ad agency in Barcelona, told Maderazo she is especially good at disconnecting when out of town.
“I [unplug] as often as I can,” she said. “Leave the phone, laptop, etc., at home and disconnect. Even my watch sometimes. Very relaxing. Usually just go on a tech strike because I’m out of town…a luxury. I should try it here at home in Barcelona sometime!”
Internet entrepreneur Jose Luis Antunez has a more hectic work life, and hasn’t taken an official vacation since 2001. Rather than take a real Technology Sabbath, he simply switches devices when everyone is on holiday.
“The concept of ‘tech holidays’ doesn’t officially exist in Spain,” he said. “What happens is that those of us who are always blogging, Twittering, etc., just go off the PC and laptop during the summer (like the rest of Spain) but we continue to use the cell phone for those things.”
But beyond just taking a vacation or one-day Sabbath from technology and the Internet, perhaps we need to consider our obsessive use of technology at all times of day (and night). I wonder whether I need more strict guidelines about when my work day actually ends and when time off begins. I would be scared to actually add up the time each day that I do work vs. the time I am relaxing away from the computer.
Ariel Meadow Stallings, for one, has decided to do more than just her weekly night unplugged.
“I’m definitely working to integrate what I’m learning from unplugged night into the other six nights a week,” she told me. “The biggest issues for me are mindfulness about the passing of time, and intention about what I’m doing at any given moment.”
What do you think about Technology Sabbaths and unplugging from work on a regular basis? If you live in another part of the world, what is your cultural norm for taking time away from work and technology? Share your thoughts in the comments below.