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Technology: Off Line, On Life

Do you need to spend less time on line and more time on life?

The title of this post refers to an epiphany I had over the New Year's weekend. The realization was about my relationship with technology, namely, I was exhibiting some of the symptoms of technology addiction.

And I wasn't the only one in my family with email and Internet issues. My wife, who doesn't own a smartphone, would, by her own admission, be checking her email or surfing the Web when she should have been paying attention to our daughters. Clearly, neither of us have perfected the in-the-present art of Zen parenting.

For those who follow my Psychology of Technology blog posts, you know that I write about the dangers of letting technology take over our lives and the importance of maintaining control over our technology use. But, I must confess that those ideas had been, up to New Year's weekend, more theory than reality. But I finally got the chance to test my theories cold turkey.

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It all started last Wednesday when I, along with my wife and two children, left for a long New Year's weekend in a part of Northern California that had neither cellular service nor Internet access -- the HORRORS! I was more than a little concerned. Though not, clinically speaking, a technology addict, I am pretty darned attached to my smartphone and computers (including a desktop PC, a notebook, and a netbook). I get emails and calls from clients and colleagues all the time and I don't like missing them.

I have to admit that I was pretty anxious at first about our trip. Not only could I not check my email or send or receive calls on my mobile phone on the two-and-a-half-hour drive , but on arrival at the small coastal town where we were staying, I wasn't able to log on with the netbook I brought along (just in case I could steal a neighbor's unsecured wireless signal) or be on line for THREE WHOLE DAYS! My technology jones was so ingrained that, all through the first evening, I would begin to reach for my phone and realize that there was no signal.

But then I noticed a strange feeling slowly coming over me. I wasn't sure what it was at first, but then I figured it out; it was...relaxation. We had a low-key dinner without my phone ringing or the little chirp of incoming emails emanating from the netbook in our kitchen at home. I didn't feel the need to rush to get my kids to bed just to get to my computer sooner. And my wife and I watched a movie together instead of going to our separate corners of the house to do email and search the Web.

But that was just the start of my revelation. For the next three days, I slept great, was more attentive to my wife and kids, didn't think about work for hours at a time, and just plain enjoyed myself immensely. I was, dare I say, living in the moment. I had just learned first hand that disconnecting from the virtual world enabled me to connect more deeply with the real world. Wow, I thought, I could get used to this.

That revelation turned into a New Year's resolution. But, having a Ph.D. in Psychology, I knew that resolutions rarely stick. I also knew that I just didn't have the willpower to resist the allure of technology if it was staring me in the face. So I decided the best way to stay off line away from work was to avoid temptation completely by removing the cake from the counter (metaphorically speaking).

When we returned home from our trip, I made three pretty dramatic changes in our house. First, I took my phone charger, which used to be on the all-too-accessible kitchen counter, and moved it downstairs to my home office. This move meant that I couldn't check my phone for calls or emails every time I went into the kitchen. I also disconnected the upstairs extension of my office phone so I wouldn't be able to take any work calls while in our home. Finally, with my wife's approval, I removed the netbook from the kitchen counter and stored it around the corner from the kitchen in a location that was convenient enough for us to pull out for recipes and for when the kids weren't around, but inconvenient enough to prevent us from emailing or surfing when we walk by it. But that netbook still beckons me like the Sirens to Odysseus.

I know this is a grand experiment in keeping the barbarians at the gate (or is it the technologists at the door?), but my wife and I are committed to make this New Year's resolution stick (yeah, that's what they all say on January 5th). I'll report back later in the year.

So, I ask you what your relationship is with technology? Are you its master or slave? Do you need to spend more time off line and on life? If so, with only a few days into the new year, how do you want to change that relationship?

I welcome your experiences, insights, and solutions.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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