RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Try a Digital Detox

“What was it I wanted to buy…?” It was lunchtime and my fellow farmer, we’ll call her Julie, and I were googling around on our computers and chatting. I had just ordered some strawberry plants and remarked on how dang easy the internet makes it to buy things. A person can get in trouble that way…

That kicked off her memory … there was something she wanted to look for … what was it? Just last night she was thinking about how she needed it and today, poof! Couldn’t think of it … what was it anyway?

I remarked that really, if she couldn’t think of what it was, she probably didn’t need it, but that didn’t make it any easier. You know how it is when you lose something from your mind’s random collection of stuff rattling around in there and then you just can’t get it back. That’s how it was.

Well, we’ll leave her in that dilemma and watch this video Laura sent, the one with the dog that’s tearing up its owner’s bed, and then we’ll check our email. No kidding, you can spend an hour, easy, moving from one site to another, and that’s if you don’t do Facebook or Twitter. If you’re into one of those, forget it. It’s worse than TV. Way worse.

A few years ago, Vancouver artist Kalle Lasn suggested TV Turnoff Week to provide an occasion for like-minded consumers to give the tube a rest. Lasn, who founded Adbusters in 1989, had kicked off a brilliant activity, Buy-Nothing Day, as a protest against Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when Americans pack the malls and buy corporate geegaws for Christmas.

My husband and I had embraced Buy-Nothing Day quite comfortably, and have hosted an annual jam session on the farm every year on that day. Sometimes we get a lot of company and we run out of stuff, but we’re stubborn people. No coffee? Drink tea instead, dear guest! No napkins? Use your sleeve. We’re not running to the store. We love you but we’re trying to make a point here …

Then we tried TV Turnoff Week. It was harder to pull off, being an entire week, but we managed it a couple of times. The case against TV was so persuasive, especially for the parents of small children. And it’s gotten worse. A University of Michigan study has found that TV is more a babysitter today than ever. “On average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV — watching television, DVDs, DVR and videos, and using a game console. Kids ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV” and that doesn’t include the time they spend with mom’s iPhone or iPad.

When Adbusters suggested Digital Detox … a week without any digital devices at all … no TV, no computer, no cell phones, it was a tempting idea. We had noticed that, as our computer addictions rose, so did our electric bill. Since our machines were fairly old, they used as much as 250 watts — the amount used by 2.5 of those old-fashioned 100-watt lightbulbs we replaced years ago. If we got rid of the computers and printers, they’d turn into toxic junk that can’t go into the landfill. And how about all that paper and ink we’re consuming? Don’t get me started!

Digital Detox turned out to be an impossible ask, at least for a couple of working stiffs like us. And, now, even Adbusters seems to agree that screens are so much a part of our lives that it’s not reasonable to give them up for a week. On the Adbusters website, the 2014 version of the week is tuned to backsliders. They boast about an app you can download onto your phone to disable it for a week, more permanently than putting it in a drawer, but the Adbusters web page had messages for each of the seven days, seemingly admitting that ordinary folks won’t be able to resist checking in.

On Day 4, for example, the message began, “I see you’re back. I will keep it short then.” And continued, “We build social relations with people whose hand we never shake, whose eyes we never meet and whose trust we’ll never gain. Today, break out of the trance. Get out there and make a true, real-time connection with someone.”

That last sentence about sums it up, and wouldn’t you know there’s a whole industry built up around making true, real-time connections. Summer camps for kids and adults alike are advertising that campers check their cell phones at the door. An insurance company is touting “Tech Timeout,” an hour per day when you put down your screens. A Center for Commercial-Free Childhood promotes a screen-free week, May 5 through 11. Their week calls for the end of screens used for entertainment — TV, video and mobile games—but leaves our work screens in place.

Let’s give it a try!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2014

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