Slicing through the tether

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Another nine days and then I venture into what is, for me, the unknown.  Just over four months of sabbatical.  Five days of guided silent retreat.  A technology fast.

I’m excited and scared.  About all of it but, in some ways, especially about the technology bit.  I tried to explain that to someone this week and they just didn’t get why I think that technology is changing my identity.  Changing it in a bad way.

It sounds strange, I know.  For those who are not addicted to the constant ‘on-ness’ of it all, such drastic steps as I am planning sound extreme.  They have not seen how communications technology enslaves.  For those who are as deeply enmired as I, my plans sound almost slightly quaint, I think.  They can’t conceive of amputating the extra limb that is the mobile, tablet and laptop and they look at me somewhat askance.

I was not always this way, though I carried the badge of corporate success as early as 2004.  In case you are wondering, that was a very basic BlackBerry on which I was not allowed to make calls because it was cheaper for the business if I used a separate work mobile.  This totem of having made it would vibrate noisily in its case (yes, they had slide-on plastic cases back then!) as early as 7am on a Saturday until I learned to turn off the auto-on function.  So I was, in one sense, an early adopter.  But at the same time as having the Blackberry, my personal mobile was a trusty Nokia 3310 which was almost always off.  In no way did the technology define my identity at this time.

The intervening nine years have seen changes though.  As a household, we are generally late adopters of technology.  I withstood the lure of the iPhone until this year.  Mostly because I am tight and iPhone contracts have only just entered the realms of what I consider good financial stewardship!  But I have had e-mail on my phone – and more recently Whatsapp – as default for some time.  Internet also has been easily accessible as part of my low-price phone contract.  With the acquisition of a tablet a couple of years ago, I got swept up into a more regular accessing of Facebook, Twitter and then a blog reader.  The stream of information sources which pass in front of my eyes in any given day has increased dramatically year on year.  My accessibility to others via e-mail began to increase the day we moved from dial-up to broadband and rocketed exponentially with the advent of mobile access to e-mail.

I now check five e-mail accounts multiple times per day.  I am on text and Whatsapp.  Twitter and Facebook are staples: although I rarely post there, I am constantly skimming the external links posted by others.  I also keep up with Feedly, my blog reader.  When I pray the Divine Hours, I do so from my phone.

And I don’t like who I am becoming.

Sherry Turkle writes about exactly this dynamic in Alone Together:

We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately.  And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us.  These amended narratives are a kind of realtechnik.  The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfilment, but it also [sic] about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self.  Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own.  The two are often closely linked.

Friends, I want to step out of this.

If I still can, of course.  (And that may be a moot point.)

I don’t want to be a tethered self.  I don’t want to live at internet hyper-speed anymore.  I don’t want my information skimming to leak into relational skimming.  I don’t want to be constantly struggling to stay on top of the flow of mostly-irrelevant information which nevertheless demands a hearing if only to confirm its irrelevance.

Instead I want to be a self in relationship with God and others.  I want to be face to face, not screen to screen.  I want to see you at least as often as I e-mail you.  To be in the presence of your embodiedness at least as often as the presence of only your voice, a Skyped projection of your face or, worse still, the vapid Facebook and Twitter statuses which speak more of your absence than your presence.

And I’m not a Luddite.  I don’t want to expunge this stuff altogether.  But I long for relationships that are embodied.  Where we sit and drink coffee or wine together.  Where we eat cake and drop crumbs and live all the messiness of life without online edits.  I want to live slow.  Slo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-w.  I want to listen to you as if you are the only one in the room, rather than simply the one to whom I will pay attention until my phone rips through our encounter and demands attention.  I want to live from the place of trust in my Father which says that though information streams will double and double and double again, I do not need to be on top of the data but can trust him as the one who sends his Spirit to guide me into all the truth.

In short, I want to live a life which is fully human.

And I think a serious review of the technology habit is in order, something which my sabbatical makes possible.  The cold-turkey five days of silence should help to break it.  What worries me more is how I reintroduce it appropriately because my sabbatical is only 0.4 of my time.  The rest is work and study in a world which relies on e-communications and so I cannot opt out entirely.  But I am afraid that I may not find the middle ground of being appropriately accessible on those e-mail accounts, instead being sucked in again by the drug which is connectivity.  I guess even this, though, will be a game of trust.  Can I trust my Father to lead me, to undertake for this as we go together, or do I need to be in control of it now?

In the spirit of this trust, I cannot tell you yet what this technology fast will look like save that I’m coming off Facebook and Twitter and my church e-mail.  My iPhone will spend most of its life in a drawer for the duration of the sabbatical and I will be on a different pay-as-you-go number on a phone which, though only about six years old, should perhaps be a museum piece.  I need the tablet for work/study but I’ll delete the e-mail accounts from it.  And I may impose a laptop curfew so I can’t work past a certain time in the evening – though this is more about my tendency to let work expand beyond its proper boundaries than the technology dynamic.  Beyond that, I don’t know what else I’ll need to do to kill this idol.  But I’m confident that the One who wants all my worship does know.

And that is enough.

This is a post in my sabbatical series.

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