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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Tech Sabbatical: Keeping it Real

Recently I was invited to take part in a Tech Sabbath – at first it made sense, but in the end I had to limit the limits!

The challenge was to create:

“motivation to unhook our wired craniums from the matrix of cyberspace…quiet the itch and dependence we feel towards devices...we’re talking about things with screens: your computer, smartphone and television.”

It was to last just a day, 24 hours. I spent a week thinking about it, and planning for it. The more I did, the more my thinking spun. In the end, I realized something, and hope you’ll agree that ultimately what is needed is better habits – not limited technology.

I should probably admit that I am biased. I’m in tech. While a coder or a digital artist, I help spin pixels into entrancing and entertaining fictions. Statistically, there’s a good chance you’ve played one of the games I’ve been involved in over the decades. So, in may ways, I’m among the reasons this challenge was even posed.

Having admitted that, you’ll forgive me when I state boldly: things with screens are just tools. They get a bad rap, like most new technologies.

Consider for example a quote in Plato’s “Phaedrus,” where Socrates reportedly tears down the technological tools of his day…

you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Can you guess the technology. Writing! Books! Then, there were complaints children read too much, and it would be debilitating. Today? We complain they read too little!

If you want a real conundrum, or perhaps a laugh, look up criticism of using the Internet in the classroom. You’ll find the above criticisms repeated, only updated and refocused.

What has this got to do with the tech sabbatical challenge?

Let me first tell you that while I have already taken the job and relocated, the family has not. We are about as physically far apart within the contiguous States as you can get. Yet, thanks to our tools, we still talk, eat, and play together. Thanks screen!

If you're here, you know that I go out most weekends for microadventures. I pretty much take off from the office and range north, towards the forests. I’ve been doing that for a few months, and now I want to get into those forests. Getting to the trailheads by foot or bike would take too long, so I want to drive.

Maps help you get beyond your range. If I was going to follow the challenge, I would have to give up the screen and buy maps. For a one-time use. No, thanks.

When I’m out in unfamiliar territory, I like to take photos. Primarily because I find it pretty, but also so I can remember land marks and study them later. I would have to pack a separate camera. I’d have the photos printed. Share them with anyone? Thanks Post Office but – no, thanks.

Some suggested to me that these aren’t the only solutions. I should have instead looked for ways to get further into the spirit of the challenge. I considered it, and ultimately asked myself: aren’t all those other options also technology? Maps are an invention, and how they are designed, laid out and presented are full of technology. A camera – technology. Even if I switched to paper and pencils or similar materials – all full of technology. So, jumping to the absurd conclusion, the only way to really get fully into the spirit of the challenge is to go forth naked and perhaps sleep in a tree or a cave. Maybe that is great, but I would argue it’s not very useful.

So, does that mean I think we shouldn’t unplug? Of course I think we should! The real question is: unplug from what? What makes these screens nefariously unlike “just any ol’ tool”?

It is the designs that draw you in, playing on your basic psychology and desire. Social media, games and the rest on not addictive, but they are super compelling. They use very specific mechanics and devices that trigger responses deep in our brains. Ones that are almost inescapable. Simple hammer or ax don’t do that readily.

I wound up modifying the challenge, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. I swore off social media, email, texts, music, alerts and any other things that weren’t planned and established…which our family connections are. Conversely, I allowed use of tool-like aspects. Maps and camera, as you’ve certainly expected. I put the tool into “airplane” mode, just to be sure.

Am I opposed to sharpening non-tech skills and tools? Heck no – love them. Indeed, I believe in back ups and so practice using regular ol’ dumb tools too. A compass, comes to mind. Recently I’ve been practicing with pace (a.k.a. ranger) beads. It’s cool stuff, and should there be some total outage, I’ll be more ready and useful.

I’m just saying, there’s nothing inherently wrong with technology. There’s often things wrong with how we use it. We shouldn’t unnecessarily hamstringing yourself. Neither should we become reliant on it, or imagine that digital communities are more important than real-world ones.

Considered from that point of view, here’s a couple things that might help understand and maybe even inoculate against the allure of all those screens…appropriately.

Hooked by Nir Eyal

Video Game Addiction by Extra Credit

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