Arts & CultureCover StoryTechnology

Plugging back in: My week without mobile technology

On Monday at 8:20 a.m., my alarm went off. I groggily reached over the edge of my bed to grab my phone, hoping for nine more minutes of peaceful snoozing. My fingers found nothing but air.

Suddenly remembering, I sat straight up. I didn’t have an iPhone. I didn’t have a laptop, either. I had a landline, a desktop and an alarm clock. No texting, tweeting or typing on-the-go for five whole days.

Why did I agree to this? The idea sprang from one of the University of Oregon’s Earth Day events: AnalogU. The event challenged students to go without electronic devices for one day.

According to Lisa Freinkel, vice provost of undergraduate studies and an organizer of the event, this was “not because there’s something wrong with digital technology, but because we all need to have a sense of the choices we’re making, and sense of empowerment about those choices.”

But what if somebody made that choice for a whole week? My editors and I sat down and set some ground rules for my own tech-less challenge.

First, I had to treat my iPhone like a landline. I couldn’t even use it to check the time. Instead, I borrowed a wristwatch from a friend. I could only use my phone when I was in my room. And if I was out? I’d need to either find a pay phone or ask a friend if I could borrow theirs (but only if they were also at home).

My laptop had to stay in my room. Any machine outside of a computer lab was off-limits.

And finally, — this was a self-imposed rule — no social media. That meant no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

With the rules fresh in my mind, I crawled out of my blankets and turned off the still-beeping alarm. What now? Usually, I would plop in my chair and pick up my phone. I’d check for late-night texts, then scroll through social media apps and reacquaint myself with the social world.

Instead, I trudged toward the shower, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. The challenge had begun.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t notice this morning tech routine until I took it away. My use of mobile technology is often unconscious. I tried to keep track of how many times I absentmindedly reached for my phone over the week, but the tally became embarrassingly high.

For Freinkel, who is also a professor of English, this subconscious reliance is a danger of mobile devices.

She described mobile device use as a “largely unconscious and automatic behavior,” something I definitely noticed.

“We’re prompted by these devices,” Freinkel said. “That, I think, impedes learning, impedes relationships on all sorts of levels. It’s the unconscious distractibility that concerns me.”

When I took my devices away, I suddenly became aware of how I used them and how that had to change. For example, if I wanted to hang out with friends, I had to give them a call — a real, live voice call. This wasn’t always easy for me or for my friends. “It took me out of my comfort zone to not get an instant reply,” said Clare Hookstratten, a close friend of mine. “I had to rely on other types of communication that I’m not used to using.”

I don’t remember the last time I spontaneously called anyone besides my mom. If I need to talk to someone, I text them first. It’s less obtrusive and a sort of unwritten social rule.

When I called people to ask about plans, conversations were short and a little awkward.

“Hey, wanna get lunch today?” I would ask, only to be greeted with confusion.

“Um. Why are you calling me?”

Sometimes, I didn’t call at all. What if I called someone while they were in class? Or taking a nap? The fear of violating deep-set communication norms was strong enough to keep me in my dorm with my homework for a good portion of the week.

Cathlene McGraw, an advisor in the Lundquist College of Business, remembers the days when this wasn’t the case. McGraw graduated from the UO in 2003, long before iPhones and five-pound laptops were ubiquitous.

“It felt to me that there was more emphasis on building relationships instead of figuring out where to get the information,” she said.

McGraw appreciates the value of a more connected world and regularly uses mobile technology in her work with the college, but she added, “There’s a big gap in terms of what students would be able to access if they didn’t have access to a phone.”

I definitely felt that gap. Without a technological extension of my arm, my information-saturated world felt rather empty. I was out of the loop. This uncomfortable feeling bled outside of my social life as well.

Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in the stairwell of Chapman Hall, trying to catch my breath after I ran across campus and up three flights of stairs. I had forgotten the meeting place for an appointment and needed to check my email. Chapman’s had the nearest computer lab I could think of.

The log-in screen seemed to take years to load. I furiously clicked through emails, found the location and took off back down the stairwell toward Collier House.

No one was there.

It took all my self-control to not reach into my backpack and grab my phone (I kept it on me in case of emergency). I speed-walked back to Chapman, beads of sweat beginning to form on my forehead. Back through the door. Back up the stairs. Back onto my email account.

The meeting was on Wednesday, not Tuesday.

I leaned back in the computer lab chair and exhaled. For every hour saved by the absence of social media distractions, it felt like one was lost running around campus or sitting idly without the resources to do work.

A few days into the week, I waited in line at Starbucks between classes. My backpack felt oddly light without my laptop and charger. Around me, buzzing conversation was accented with keyboard clicks and the occasional ringing notification. People juggled cardboard cups and urgent text messages. Nearly every table was taken with a laptop or two.

As I waited for my order, I couldn’t stop thinking about my loss of potential productivity. I could be typing an essay, emailing my professor or catching up on my friends’ lives. Instead, I watched and wondered if it was even possible to live unplugged for more than just five days.

For some students, life without a laptop would never work. Journalism majors comprised 8.8 percent of the student body in fall 2014, according to the Office of the Registrar.

The School of Journalism and Communications website states, “course work will be assigned with the assumption that students have access to a laptop computer.” According to  the School of Journaliam professor, Lisa Heyamoto. It’s “theoretically possible” for journalism majors to get by without access to mobile technology.

“But I also think because we’re a school of communication, it is important to have tools of communication at your disposal,” Heyamoto added.

Other majors benefit from laptop use, as well.  For Helen Southworth, who teaches English in the honors college, mobile use encourages creativity and efficiency.

“In terms of doing any kind of library work, having your laptop with you just gives you a lot more opportunities,” Southworth said.

Southworth asks students to use smartphones to take photos of books and resources to enable accurate citations. Gone are the days where a line of students snakes out of the library’s copier room as each person painstakingly scans one or two pages of a textbook.

Things are back to normal now. When this story is published, I’ll have been back for nearly a week. Part of me misses the blissful ignorance of a landline and desktop.

In fact, going a week without feeling the familiar buzzing of a Facebook notification or the tone of an email arriving was freeing. That’s why I changed settings on my phone, so I won’t be inundated with notifications each time I glance at the screen.

There’s no doubt, though, that it’s good to be back.

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Rachel Benner

Rachel Benner

Rachel is a Theatre writer for the Arts and Culture Desk.