Turn Off, Tune Out: The National Day of Unplugging Is Upon Us

Twenty-four hours without your smartphone or tablet? Cue Bernard Herrmann's shrieking Psycho violins for the next 1,440 minutes. Think you could do it?

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Twenty-four hours without your smartphone or tablet? Cue Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking Psycho violins for the next 1,440 minutes. Think you could do it? The folks behind the National Day of Unplugging are hoping that, to paraphrase Tim Leary, you can “turn off, tune out and drop by (and see someone).”

The party kicks off tonight at sunset, March 1, and rolls through sunset tomorrow, March 2 (or as the site describes it, “sundown to sundown”). During those ostensibly blissful hours of cyber-abstinence, you’re encouraged to “start living a different life: connect with the people in your street, neighborhood and city, have an uninterrupted meal or read a book to your child.”

Hey man, everyone’s doing it! Even Arianna Huffington (no really — she’s a few rows down in the site’s promotional picture collage). But okay, what’s this all about really? A bunch of wacky luddites on their anti-technology high horses?

Not exactly, though there is a slight religious angle. This “unplug challenge” launched back in 2010 as a riff on the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat — the Jewish day of rest, which starts Friday evening and runs through Saturday night. If you attended a parochial elementary school (as I did, though I’m not the least bit religious) and at one point had to read the Old Testament book of Exodus, you may recall the line “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest.” The event’s nonprofit sponsor group, Reboot, took that and spun it into more of a tech-angled holiday — as they put it, “an adaption of our ancestors’ ritual of carving out one day per week to unwind, unplug, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones.”

There’s something alluring about unplugging for a day or two when your life looks more and more like a Sharper Image ad. In my house we have three laptops, a desktop PC and flatscreen, two smartphones, one tablet, multiple game consoles and handhelds, a wireless printer, a computer-connected hybrid digital piano, another computer-connected vintage keyboard, an Internet-connected baby-cam, an Internet-connected television and cable box, and dozens of other little USB or wireless gizmos that interlink with our cyber-ecosystem. Even my seven-month-old’s toys are in on the action: Someone recently gifted us a green plush-toy dog named “Scout.” Except Scout isn’t your garden variety stuffed puppy: He comes with a giant “hump” on his back, which upon closer analysis turns out to be a USB connection pack that’ll let you plug in and download songs for Scout to sing, customize playlists — even program him to speak our child’s name. It’s pretty cool…and a little terrifying.

You could say I had my own “Day of Unplugging” preview earlier this week, a.k.a. “it snowed a bunch,” some trees fell on some power lines, and bam, the power flatlined to my condo for a dozen hours. Sure, I still had my half-charged smartphone and mostly-charged laptop, the ability to contact the local power company using its iOS app and to let my gracious boss at TIME Tech know I’d be out of pocket since the local daycare shuttered and I had my son for the day. But I was also reminded of just how dependent I’ve become on digital technology to do much of anything, really. Take my piano, a hybrid Yamaha AvantGrand, with its full acoustic piano action and sampled piano sounds: Unplug the thing and it’s just a toneless, thumping assemblage of plastic, metal and wood. It’s a little unsettling to think my piano stops being a piano when the power goes south.

But then I’m not really in favor of Extreme Unplugging (if anything, this winter’s convinced me it’s time to buy a generator). I don’t see my smartphone or tablet or the laptop I’m typing this on as any different, in principle, from the No. 2 pencils I used to write with, or the spiral-bound notebooks I filled with notes in college: all 100% technology — it’s not that we use it, but how we do that matters. (Also, speaking as a Midwesterner who once hit black ice on Interstate 80, fishtailed into a snow-filled ditch at 70 m.p.h. and fortunately had presence of mind to pull out my cellphone and dial 911, I can’t really endorse leaving your phone behind, wherever you go.)

Instead of a Day of Unplugging, maybe what we really need is a Day of Contemplation, to think about what we’ve given over to faceless interaction. I’m a technophile, but when M.I.T. professor and psychologist Sherry Turkle worries we’ve “sacrificed conversation for mere connection,” what she’s saying resonates with me, speaking as a guy who’s telecommuted to work each day for the last eight years and who spends untold hours each week parked in front of a laptop screen. I won’t turn off or tune out tonight, tomorrow…probably ever again, but I will keep looking for ways to mitigate all this screen time and spend more of it engaging face-to-face with family and friends.