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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 3, 2013 at 8:32 PM

Dissecting disconnection: Why I’m taking the week off tech

This week I’m going to shut it all off.

I’ll have no email. No Facebook. No texts. No phone. I’ll be out of touch. Out of the loop. I may get lost. Lonely. Even, sometimes, bored.

It’s going to be great.

You’ve probably heard this story before. Someone you know has disconnected for days from the personal technologies that grip daily life, or you’ve done it yourself.

This will be my third weeklong disconnection in as many years. My first felt like rehab, a sign that something was wrong. I wondered if it was an attempt to escape technology or recover some long-lost life without it.

Now I see things differently.

Disconnection is a rest, of course, with all the relief that brings. But more usefully, it’s a performance review of my interconnected life. New technologies breed new attitudes and habits so fast, sometimes, they hide. It’s like a tide receding: The longer I let the water drain, the more of those hidden habits I see.

And, maybe, I clean up.

So here’s my plan. I’m going to text my family when I touch down Monday in Colorado, then make my last checks of email, social networks and my ever more addictive news apps. When I join my family at the place we’re staying, I’m going to put my phone, my laptop, their associated chargers and the Nike FuelBand I wear on my wrist in a distant drawer I won’t open for a week.

I’m going to watch TV and, if the mood strikes, maybe use a camera. I won’t need to disconnect from all technologies, only the ones that know me.

How come? That’s nicely illustrated in a New Yorker cartoon writer Nicole Neroulias sent me last week. A scattered crowd of city dwellers walks up and down a crosswalk, each with those vision-impairment canes tapping the way in front of them. None is blind. In the hand that isn’t holding canes, each holds a smartphone.

It’s safest to say all change is incremental, but there is no understating this: For the first time ever, we each have access to vast personal worlds that at every moment compete with the world around us. Personal worlds so close, so portable and so well tuned to who we are and what we want that when they go up against the common world of sky, streets and spontaneity — the world that doesn’t require a login — they actually win. A lot.

This week, I won’t give mine the chance.

It’s worth asking why. Verge writer Paul Miller, after he took a whole year off the Internet, wrote an essay that convinced me that many of the battle lines we draw between the virtual and physical worlds are nostalgic nonsense. Leaving a comment on someone’s Facebook page is not the same as talking to her in person, but neither is it some cold perversion of “real world” communication.

But because it’s so easy and instant and mine, posting that comment can feel, in decisive split seconds of instinct, more important than talking to the friends around me. Sending an email on a walk can feel more important than noticing the new flowers in my neighbor’s yard. And — admit it, kids — texting can feel more important than driving. I’m not saying techie tasks are never worth pulling away from the world to do. We’re busy people. We’ve got to make good use of our time.

“Deep down,” @aporetics tweeted me with a smiley, “you know your phone is the only person who really understands you.”

But this is the space I want to watch. This is where those hidden habits form that I don’t always like.

I’ve excused myself from fun nights out to go to the bathroom and check my email. I’ve half-listened when my husband needs to talk to me to check comments on my blogs. I’ve walked down quiet streets and found them dull, because they weren’t showing me things I could tweet about. No more. At least, not when I’m paying attention.

I realize, by the way, that this week’s disconnection is only possible because the circumstances are right. I can suspend my work obligations, but I’m a new mom. No way I’d risk going off the grid if it meant being disconnected from the people who most need me.

I should also say that I will be the only one unplugged on the trip. I can’t send a text, or look up a restaurant, or call in an emergency, but my husband can. And I admit: for all the liberties of disconnection, leaving the side of a friend with a smartphone for too long will, this week, be a scary prospect.

But hey. We survived a long time without this stuff. Pretty sure I can handle a week.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email at mguzman@seattletimes.com, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook. This week, though, it’s likely she won’t get to the messages for a while.

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