Disconnect: Finding connections by unplugging

Digital purges are difficult, but it seems in...

John Gottman can tell with 93.6 percent certainty if your marriage will end in divorce. In his “Love Lab”–a research laboratory at the University of Washington–he and a team of researchers videotape couples interacting in the most mundane, everyday ways and then analyze the results. One thing Gottman looks for in a strong marriage?

Spouses who turn toward each other.

Seems simple. But technology is luring us away. A 2014 study on “technoference” (interference from technology) reports that 74 percent of women felt they had to compete with their partners’ smartphones for attention every day.

If you’ve ever been dissed by a partner whose phone seemed more alluring than you, you’ve felt the sting of technoference. But what if your partner can’t help it?

This Is Your Mind on Tech
Humans have been around for 200,000 years. For most of this time we hunted, made babies and developed some cultural rituals. We learned that sudden movements or sounds could be dangerous, and our brains learned to react quickly.

Our brains are newcomers to this era we call “the information age.” The World Wide Web turned 24 last year, spanning only 1.25 percent of humankind’s existence. Our caveman brains have not caught up to technology. In one generation, we’ve gone from punch cards to smartphones. Today, the average American looks at a smartphone 150 times a day and toggles between computer tasks 37 times an hour. Our smartphones have become the equivalent of indispensable Swiss army knives helping us navigate life. It’s a flashlight, a dictionary, a GPS and a calculator. We use it for work to check emails, consume news and look up information, and we use it for leisure via Facebook, Pinterest, OKCupid, Hulu and Netflix.

Brains are inherently adaptable, but technology has outpaced our biological adaptation. We’re stuck with an old-fashioned response to notifications, screens and buzzes, which results in a little squirt of dopamine. You get a new email. Squirt. You buy something on Amazon. Squirt. You get a text notification. Squirt. Facebook notifies you about a new comment. Squirt. Our brains just plod on, getting doped up doing their caveman thing.

All of this digital doping comes at a cost. It impedes us from doing the things that make us human in our creativity, empathy and presence, which Manoush Zomorodi argues shines through most often when we’re not plugged in.

Zomorodi hosts WNYC’s “Note to Self,” a podcast dedicated to exploring what it’s like to be human in a digital world. A few years ago, she noticed something troubling: She was running out of story ideas. She felt she’d lost her mojo and wondered if her digital addictions were the culprit. Her best ideas, she realized, happened when she was bored–in the shower, pushing her child’s stroller, waiting in line at the DMV. But now, with her digital pacifier, she was never bored.

To test her hypothesis, Zomorodi invited listeners to participate in a five-day challenge called “Bored and Brilliant: The Lost Art of Spacing Out.” She was going to deliberately shake up people’s relationships with their smartphones and give them more time to daydream. She expected a few hundred people to sign up. Nearly 20,000 people logged on. Turns out, a lot of us are jonesing for headspace.

After a week of challenges like “Keep your phone in your pocket when you’re walking,” and “Delete the app you use the most,” Zomorodi had her results. Seventy percent of participants said they felt they had more time to think. Billy from Brooklyn said, “I’m feeling like I’m awakening from an extended mental hibernation” and a well-known journalist whom Zomorodi wouldn’t reveal said, “Bored and Brilliant has transformed how I work.” Newsweek summarized the five-day challenge in a way that true podcast geeks will understand: “More thrilling than Serial.”

Zomorodi didn’t ask people to kill their technology, just to tame it. To give each of us more time to express our humaneness.

The irony is clear. We live in a knowledge economy but are giving ourselves less time to think. Our devices give us more access but they leave us dumbstruck, mindlessly scrolling. Andy Haldance, the Bank of England’s chief economist, wonders if our “fast thinking” is contributing to slower economic growth. Information alone is insufficient to create wealth; we have to maintain our capacity to analyze it and create enough distance to approach it with fresh eyes. The same can be said about our relationships with others–a fresh perspective is powerful.

Madison-based photographer Adriana Todd and her husband Chris Todd were in bed one Friday night scrolling through their phones. (#FunSadFact: Facebook’s peak hours are at bedtime.) Adriana suddenly turned to her husband and said, “How about we don’t touch our phones the entire weekend?” Chris was game. They’d unplugged before. Sort of. While camping they’d put their phones on airplane mode and tossed them aside.

But this was different. Adriana and Chris weren’t in the woods sleeping outside. They weren’t cooking over a campfire. They were at home. All weekend. Surrounded by access to electricity and screens and other hyper-connected people. This was a true test.

“Questions came up like, how long do we bake these sweet potatoes or what’s the weather like?'” Adriana says. Chris and Adriana realized how much they rely on their phones for the simplest of things. But Adriana says, “How about you just learn by trial and error, or, why don’t you step outside and see?”

The Todds have continued to unplug every weekend. They try a new restaurant every weekend. Without their phones. They are tourists in their hometown, just biking or walking around Madison. Unplugged. They have dance parties with their dogs in their living room. Without posting the photos to Facebook.

The best part?

“I feel closer to my husband,” Adriana says. “These moments are genuine.”

It’s easy to forget you’re missing moments when you’re trying to keep up with a never-ending stream of information.

FoMO, JoMO & the Dojo
In 2013, the term FoMO was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. “Fear of missing out” describes the feeling of “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere.” Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting and other social media platforms heighten our feelings of FoMO because they show us minute by minute what we’re missing. In some studies, social media usage is correlated to depression. It’s hard to see all the fun our friends seem to be having; we feel lame by comparison.

A year after FoMO entered the lexicon, blogger and entrepreneur Anil Dash countered with JoMO, the joy of missing out. He described the month after his first son was born–a month in which he was completely off Facebook for the first time–as wonderful. He concluded that he was unwilling to allow his devices to drive guilt, fear or obligation. His caveman brain was learning to override its biological response.

Like the Todds, Dash and Zomorodi’s 20,000 followers, many people are experimenting with unplugging. They want to be more present in their day-to-day lives or rediscover what makes their hearts skip a beat. Adriana described it simply as the desire to be “more Zen.” So I asked Gordon Hakuun Greene, an actual Zen master based in Spring Green, for his thoughts on technology and unplugging.

Greene, the head priest of Spring Green Dojo, has written several books and spent much of his professional career training doctors. He’s no stranger to email, though. The dojo (Zen training center) grounds are served by a satellite wireless signal. Greene defines technology as developing the tools to get something done and uses an unlikely example: “Gravel is a highly refined technology for keeping your feet dry in wet and muddy conditions.” Leave it to a Zen master to unseat you from your narrative.

Greene considers the idea of having an unplugged Zen existence as a contradiction. Real Zen, he argues, is highly plugged in. But not to an outlet or an electronic device. “The translation of the Sanskrit name of the Bodhisattva of Compassion is ‘The One Who Hears All the Cries in the World,'” Greene says. “It doesn’t get much more plugged in than that.”

On the day we exchanged emails, Greene was plugged in and responding to the cries of a son whose mother was dying in hospice, a woman having a difficult pregnancy and a woman who wanted to commit suicide. “Compassion,” he reminds me, “is the physical capability to face all of human suffering,” as Greene was doing that day.

And Greene has insight on FoMO, too. “From a Zen perspective, we can say that suffering comes from attachment, or from fear.” Perhaps we experience a fear of missing out because we’ve become attached to knowing what’s going on. True unplugging, in Greene’s way of thinking, is releasing our attachment to knowing.

In 1992, the term “surfing the internet” entered the lexicon. Few of us feel that we’re surfing now. Most of us feel that we’re treading water or even drowning in a digital deluge that would overtake our lives if we let it. We are the first humans to confront technoference. We’re still learning, clumsily, how to adapt. But once we understand, like the Todds did, how our devices steal our time–to connect, to create, to explore–we can make a different choice. We can choose to unplug. We can choose to turn toward each other. We can choose to explore how to live more humanly in a digital world.

The Unplugged Reader Challenge
Want to unplug? Join Madison Magazine readers for a five-day challenge to fight information overload. Log on to the five-day “Infomagical challenge” produced by WNYC at wnyc.org/infomagical. You’ll be asked to set a goal for why you want to fight info overload, and each day you’ll receive a text or email prompt inviting you to participate in a new challenge. At the end of the week, you’ll be asked to report your results. We’d love to hear about your experience–let us know how it went by tweeting at us, @madison_mag.

Rebecca Ryan is a professional futurist and author based in Madison. After developing what she calls “screen sickness” several years ago, she began to question her relationship with technology. Visit her website at RebeccaRyan.com.