Tuning Out New Media

In a world where staying connected can be a 24/7 occupation, some Seattleites are examining the valu
Karen Johnson  |   December 2009   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

At first I ignored the signs: Between fielding the usual e-mails and cruising my favorite online newsfeeds, I started answering a coworker’s questions via online chats, sneaking peeks at Facebook, texting during meetings and tweeting up-to-the-minute observations on everything from political debates to my favorite TV shows. But when taking iPhone photos of food became more important than eating, I had to face the obvious truth: Somewhere in the course of the past year, I’d succumbed to the 24/7 diversions of new media.

We’re in the midst of a perfect communication storm. Twitter and Facebook have given us the power to forge vast social networks, and mobile devices allow us to do almost everything online all the time. “Nowadays you can Bluetooth your whole body, Skype with your friend. Eventually we’ll go bionic,” jokes Mara Adelman, an associate professor of communications at Seattle University (SU) and one of a number of locals examining the downside of all this connectedness.

Many of us have learned first-hand that hypercommunication and multitasking come at a cost: stress, shortened attention spans and a constant sense of urgency. To combat the symptoms of new media overload, Adelman and a growing number of media- and tech-savvy Seattleites are reclaiming control of their schedules, putting boundaries between work life and social life, and carving out time to be alone to think and reflect.

Adelman, who pioneered a course on restorative solitude at SU, likens our new relationship with technology to a romantic seduction. People are attracted to the immediate satisfaction. “Technology is sexy. It’s so compelling we don’t really question it. We just embrace it,” she says. And as with a rushed courtship, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. To drive this point home, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, which argues that multitasking has created an ADD society, is required reading in Adelman’s SU course.

For Monica Guzman, one of Seattle media’s first technophiles, it took being approached by a colleague to realize that she was too plugged in. Guzman, a self-described geek, helped build the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Big Blog newsfeed back when most media publications had skeletal online staffs. In the beginning she was the only tweeter in the entire P-I newsroom. She embraced the medium, posting breaking news headlines from home, while out of town, even while driving. “It was consuming me,” says Guzman, who didn’t recognize the extent of her ultraconnected state until she attended a conference where another attendee called out her behavior: “They pulled me aside and said, ‘Monica, you need to stop this.’”

Getting away from technology has its benefits, notes Hanson Hosein, director of the master of communication in digital media program at the University of Washington. Though he’s one of the region’s more vocal advocates of the virtues of social and digital media, he believes that all media must be consumed in moderation. Hosein deliberately takes time to seek what he calls Zen moments throughout the day. Kayaking to work, listening to music in high-resolution audio (revered for capturing the vinyl experience), writing with pen and paper—it’s all worthy if it helps him to reach his ultimate goal: “finding a moment to breathe.”

In her restorative solitude course, Adelman asks students to go on a digital fast. No cell phones, no music, no television, no e-mails, no Facebook, no Twitter. The result? Students have reported discovering everything from compulsive texting habits to a car problem that went unnoticed because of a stereo system turned up too loud.

Beyond academia, some journalists are struggling with how much to limit their connectedness. “It’s a matter of drawing a line in the sand,” says Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur, who last summer wrote a column entitled, “Freedom from Tweet is Sweet.” “Twitter is like a whiny 2-year-old,” she said in a recent interview. You have to pay attention to it constantly.” Although she now microblogs occasionally, Brodeur says that in the little free time she has, she still prefers connecting with people in real time. “You have to ask yourself, ‘How do you want to choose to spend your time?’ I don’t want to spend it typing about the great lunch I had at Campagne.”

I was recently inspired to take my own break from technology. Last summer, I shut down my laptop, powered off my cell phone and slipped on a 40-pound backpack. On my itinerary: a Costa Rican beachfront bungalow, lively conversations with locals and quiet time listening to only the surf. I returned from my trip refreshed, energized—and ready to tweet all about it.