City Lights: Unplugging in a fast-paced digital world

I'm living an austere lifestyle as I write these words. At least, as austere as possible under the circumstances.

My Twitter and Facebook accounts are logged off. My iPhone, which harbors my Hotmail account and text messages, is in my pocket untouched. My work computer is still on, but I've closed every website except Google and promised myself not to use that one unless I need to for a story.

I'm not exactly Amish, I know. I still have my work email on — if one of my colleagues calls a meeting in the next few minutes, it would be irresponsible of me to miss it — and my landline is plugged in as well. But I've taken at least a few steps to pare my world to a single space and time. In other words, if two of my high school friends are picking apart "Pretty Little Liars" or if a fellow editor is live-tweeting a Lakers game, I'm here in the office and not there with them.

I realized the need for this experiment after I detected an involuntary twitch in my left forearm this month at the Newport Beach Central Library. I had just sat through a lecture by author Sherry Turkle about her book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," which analyzes the ways technology impacts our social and emotional lives — especially if we're "digital natives," Turkle's term for young people who grew up with Twitter and the like.

To a capacity crowd in the library's meeting room, the author talked about some of the phenomena she's witnessed in years of doing research. As a teacher, she once asked students why they texted during lectures, and one replied, "I need to see who wants to be in touch with me." Another example was downright chilling; Turkle described people who tapped their iPhones during funerals because they wanted to escape the "boring bits."

Scandalous? Sure. But on my way out of the library, as I proudly told myself that my attention span far exceeded those of Turkle's subjects, I felt a familiar motion: my left hand sliding into my pants pocket to retrieve my iPhone. I steeled it in place, then felt the urge again seconds later; I hadn't even made it to the door, and already I wanted an update. Had a friend texted me? Was there an email from a colleague? If I waited a half hour until I was home to check my messages, would I be out of the loop?

To one of the digital natives that Turkle described, those may seem like run-of-the-mill concerns. But I'm not a digital native, and once I willed my hand to stay out of that pocket at least for a few minutes, I tried to reimagine the days before Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg put so many things within reach at a second's notice. In short, how did I used to wait so long?

Well, the true answer to that question is "impatiently." Decades before social media, I already had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and a desire to know as much as possible as soon as possible; I just didn't have the resources that are available now. If I ordered a book or video, I might pace in front of the house for weeks waiting for the UPS truck. The newspaper and mail (no need to call it "snail mail" then) brimmed with possibilities when they arrived.

Under those circumstances, gathering information felt like a dedicated craft — the equivalent of building a sculpture a small piece at a time. If one book at the library had three more movie stills of the Marx Brothers than another, those three would be studied in depth. If one video had slightly more footage of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak than another, the added frames didn't just excite; they brought with them the aura of accomplishment, the notion that they had been tracked down and discovered.

Nowadays, as an editor, I have Google open on my screen for 40 or more hours a week. If I need to check anything, whether about DiMaggio or Costa Mesa's last mayor, I can plug it in and have the answer in seconds. But those online devices don't just make work more efficient. On a typical day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds fill by the minute with colleagues posting articles, commenting on mine or debating the morning's news; my work email and Hotmail fill at the same rate. Like Turkle said, I'm both here and countless other places at the same time. After so many years, can I be just one place for an extended length of time?

So I decided to test myself. Monday morning, I set a regimen for the week: one check of Hotmail and Facebook in the morning, one at lunch and one at night before bed. Twitter would stay off unless I had to post a story on it. I would send no texts during the work day unless someone texted me with an emergency.

The fact that you're reading this story shows that those limitations didn't prove fatal. And I had a couple of revelations in the process. I learned, for one thing, that I can easily live without Twitter, which provides exciting links but also constant distraction; every time I glance back and see the number of new tweets posted at the top, I feel behind on my reading. I'm considerably fonder of Facebook, which is slower and allows for a more personal touch, but it creates the same feeling of racing to catch up. Like corn chips, it requires the willpower to say when.

Once in a while, non-digital-native that I am, I fantasize about chucking communication technology altogether. There's a problem, though: to borrow a line from Robert Frost, I have promises to keep. In my different capacities — editor, reporter, Press Club member — I need to touch base with a network of people, and many of them require responses much quicker than snail mail and landlines can provide.

If I restricted myself to those last two avenues of communication, would I inconvenience others? Quite possibly, yes. There is a difference between being a purist and simply being a relic of another time, and now that social media has changed the way we interact and do business, going back to the old methods feels like a self-indulgent protest. And so the websites and iPhone, however demanding, stay on — not because I need them so much as because others need me.

Before long, my social media use may be back to its full schedule. But if I feel my left hand sway unhurriedly the next time I walk out of an event, I can thank Turkle for reconnecting me. There is so much wonder around us, so much beyond those pocket-sized screens.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World