My Digital Sabbath: how one writer learned to stop checking Facebook and love life offline
I can’t say specifically which fabulous new technology made me decide I needed a break from all fabulous new technologies. For years I had been blissfully work-playing and play-working in the miasma of plugged-in life, writing magazine columns while live-streaming baseball games and listening to music and IMing and playing online chess and checking my email every two minutes, and not worrying whether performing five or six tasks simultaneously might limit my ability to perform any of them adequately. Maybe it was the iPad, a device designed, as far as I can tell, to allow you to watch television while you’re watching television. A friend told me about trying to talk to her teenage son while he was on his iPhone. “Why are you always looking at that thing when I’m trying to talk to you?” she asked. He answered: “Where do you think I learned it from, Mom?”
My own household seemed headed down a similar path. I needed to step away. I needed to go look at a tree. I discussed it with my wife, who was feeling similarly tech-ed out, and we made a monumental family decision. We were going to impose a digital Sabbath. Because my wife is Jewish, our Sabbath goes from Friday night to Saturday night. Though we discussed various options—TV but no email? Google Maps but no cellphones?—in the end we went with a hard line: no screens of any kind. No BlackBerrys, no cellphones, no iPads, no laptops, no TV.
The first thing I discovered is how surprisingly difficult it is to live without screens, and not just because of the obvious inconveniences. There’s a wide-ranging and largely unresolved debate between sociologists and neurologists, much of it centred on Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, about how deeply the Internet is affecting our brain chemistry. All I can say is that my own brain is overwhelmed by the absence of screens on Friday night. I’m jittery, like my mind is a crumpled piece of paper uncrumpling. The digital Sabbath makes me realize how deeply the tendency toward distraction has been ingrained in my consciousness. It’s hard for me just to play Lego with my son. It’s hard just to read a newspaper.
I am not an Internet addict by any definition, but I do wonder why I crave something that makes me less happy. After wasting whole afternoons on social media, I have the same guilty mixture of contempt and self-loathing that I get from reading a collection of Christmas letters. The constant self-presentation—a friend starting up a doomed restaurant and using Facebook as a desperate means of attracting customers, a fellow writer broadcasting his position on the bestseller list through Twitter, constant pictures of everybody’s happy families—generates an exhausting sadness born of perpetual status anxiety.
On Friday night, my brain is overwhelmed by the absence of screens. I’m jittery, like my mind is a crumpled piece of paper uncrumpling
The hyper-self-consciousness many of us feel in front of a keyboard is only assuaged by the constant sense that something new and wonderful is about to happen. Yet when you spend a day off Facebook, you miss nothing. Never have I arrived at Saturday night and thought to myself, “I wish I had spent the last 24 hours on Twitter,” even though I love Twitter. The Sabbath makes me realize that my love for Twitter is at least somewhat grotesque, fuelled by social anxieties that ultimately amount to a form of narcissism.
I know I’m not alone. There are others who believe that a once-a-week break from technology has wider social value. The Sabbath Manifesto, a group founded by a bunch of Jewish artists, presents itself in the regalia of political activism—with publicly staged actions (handing out miniature sleeping bags for cellphones) and even an awareness-raising holiday, the National Day of Unplugging. The Sabbath Manifesto group is not composed of Luddites or even nostalgics. The people who hate the Internet also love it, myself certainly included. This combination of love and resistance is new.
A generation ago, my father, moved by the arguments in the book Four Arguments for the Abolition of Television, banned TV in our house. And that made sense: TV is bad for you, like pop. It rots your brain, plain and simple. The computer is not so simple. Is someone who spends too much time on the computer a junkie or an expert? Once-basic distinctions—between work and play, between healthy and unhealthy, between activity and distraction—vanish under the glare of the screens. Which is why the digital Sabbath is so necessary; it reestablishes the distinctions. It draws a line.
I have been doing digital Sabbath for a year now, and I’m getting better at it. I’m improving at not doing anything, a fact I am quite proud of. Last weekend, my family went to a reptile zoo, where we were lucky enough to see a python eating a rabbit. It was unbelievable, a horrifying and glorious reverse birth. We watched for over an hour, totally rapt, utterly fascinated. Nobody checked email. I couldn’t have done that eight months ago.
Despite needing the break, during my 24 hours of abstinence, I miss my computer. Tried to use a printed map lately? Or the White Pages? Or waited for a radio broadcaster to drone through an interview when you just want to hear the weather? Life without the Internet isn’t just absurd. It’s insulting. It doesn’t care about you. In the Jewish tradition, there’s a ritual, at the end of Shabbat, of smelling a box filled with spices to steel yourself for the return to secular life. We don’t need a spice box in our house. The MacBook is now the secular world and all its wonders rolled up into an elegant, portable package. It’s all the knowledge in the world. It’s all the movies, all the TV shows, everything and everybody right here and right now.
The digital Sabbath makes you realize just how wonderful the devices we live through are, how powerful, how transformative, how magical. But even magic needs a rest.
Stephen Marche’s most recent book is How Shakespeare Changed Everything.
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