Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Reader challenge #3: Unplug from the virtual world

September 13, 2010 by Rolf Potts

As I stated in my introduction post, the No Baggage Challenge isn’t just about traveling around the world without luggage — it’s also an inquiry into simplifying material concerns and seeking rich life-experiences. This in mind, I’m inviting readers to join the journey by participating in a weekly series of challenges, most of which can be applied at home. My sponsors will give out weekly swag to honor the most compelling reader submissions (see below for details), but ideally this should be seen less as a competitive undertaking than a way to set personal goals and consider new ideas.

This week’s challenge, “unplug from the virtual world,” is about managing your online and electronic-communication habits in such a way that you can make the most of your real-world surroundings. This idea — to waste less time in the virtual world and seek a life that is less mediated — ties into the “Be Where You Are Now” theme of my Do Lecture in Wales last year.

I realize that there is no lack of irony in this new challenge: You are, after all, reading this online, and my no-baggage journey has been arranged in such a way that I can keep this content updated on an almost daily basis. Fortunately, this initiative isn’t about becoming a Luddite; it’s about lightening your electronic baggage — that is, managing your “wired” life in such a way that it better enhances your real life (instead of distracting you from it).

A phrase that has come into common use in recent years is “continuous partial attention” — the 21st century compulsion to electronically multitask our lives, to skim through each day and never be completely invested in one single activity. If there’s one endeavor that can help jar you out of that partial-attention haze, it’s travel. Would you want to idly check your Facebook feed while wandering the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru? Would you want to search YouTube for wacky cat videos while sipping cold white wine on a quiet beach in the Greek Cyclades? Of course not: Travel is a heightened experience that demands your full attention, and the lessons it teaches you can apply at home.

I say this not as someone riding a high-horse, but as a guy who himself struggles with “continuous partial attention” in the wired world. There are days when I get online to check a few emails, and wind up frittering away an hour or two on amusing-but-pointless online diversions. Those wasted hours are pleasant enough, but they make my life less efficient and less memorable. Travel, which offers a greater density of life experience, helps remind me how awesome unwired days can be.

At heart this initiative isn’t about the pitfalls of electronic technology so much as it is about balance. On one hand, new communication technologies can expand our information and life-options; on the other hand these technologies can rule our lives in such a way that they erode connections to our immediate surroundings and mediate the experience of being alive.

This question of balance is nothing new. More than 2000 years ago, in a Platonic dialogue called Phaedrus, Socrates worried that the written word would erode the intuitive associations and memory powers that characterized oral storytelling. Over the past 100 years, this concern has taken an increasingly heightened pitch, as a string of new technologies has affected our lives: novelist George Orwell, for example, lamented that the sound of the radio had become more “normal” in daily life than the sound of birds; social critic Susan Sontag wondered if — given the ubiquity of point-and-shoot cameras in the mid-late 20th century — “having an experience becomes identical with taking a photograph of it”; media theorist Marshall McLuhan noted that electronic media (and television in particular) “has a way of arranging the world in such a way that nobody needs to go to the trouble of experiencing it.”

How can one balance utilizing the resources of the virtual world with better experiencing the real one? Actually, that’s what I’m asking readers to explore in this challenge. Starting this week, I’d like you to come up with a plan to lighten your electronic baggage and make your “wired” life more efficient. This could mean doing no work-related electronic tasks while you’re at home; it could mean checking your email inbox or Facebook news-feed just once a day; it could mean getting outside and going for a walk (or spending some actual face-time with a friend or family member) during the 45 minutes you usually spend surfing around for silly online amusements each morning. It could even mean going “cold turkey” from all online activities and virtual-world interactions for a full week — though, again, the point isn’t to reject technology entirely so much as test out a balance-strategy.

As you seek virtual-world/real-world balance, you may well spend less time clicking around on this blog in the coming week — and that’s fine (though certainly not required). The timing of this initiative is tied to the fact that I’ll be headed off on South African safari in coming days — which means I’ll be offline myself for a week. I’m sure I’ll go through slight electronic withdrawal the first day or two on safari, but — if past experience holds true — an unwired week in the African wilderness should be akin to a rush of experiential oxygen. I’ll elaborate on that in a future field report (and do note that — thanks to advance scheduling and a slight time-lag — the day-to-day content on this blog shouldn’t be affected much when I’m off on safari.)

Since this week’s challenge is a tad unorthodox, it will be a two-week, three-step process: First, post your unplugging strategy in the comments below; second, spend a week putting your plan into action; and third, after a week, reply to your own comment with a brief (less than 500 words) summary of what you learned and experienced. Was is difficult? Easy? What did you do with the time you saved being less “wired” from day to day? What, if anything, did you miss? I’m not looking for a rote affirmation of the unplugged life so much as an honest personal inquiry into (and hard-won advice for) “being where you are now” and finding online/offline balance.

Please post your initial strategy in the comment below this week; the deadline for self-replying to your initial post is Monday, September 27th, at midnight. The good folks at BootsnAll will then convene to choose the most intriguing unplugging experiment/strategy — and the winner will receive a Moleskine notebook, a copy of my book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, and a set of ScotteVest travel clothing similar to the gear I’m wearing on my no-baggage journey (Tropical Jacket/Vest, Q-Zip pullover, and travel pants).

[FYI: Reader Challenge #4 will also have a two-week deadline, so you can still participate in that initiative, even if you aren’t online next Monday, when that post debuts. Image above by flickr user onetreehillstudios. Licensed under Creative Commons.]

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