The faculty and staff at St. Michael’s College is on a technology fast, giving up cell phones, email and the like for the week to have a chance to reflect on their use of digital media. The article gives examples of similar movements, including a comedian who went web-less for a whole year, and I was reminded of the “turn off the TV” campaign we did at my middle school back in the 90s. I also found myself substituting different words for the digital media; for instance, I have something of a “reading addiction” so wondered if I needed to go on a “book fast,” as a way to reconnect with others and examine my seemingly endless need to absorb written text.
I have no complaint with these “disconnect to reconnect” movements. We fall into habits and only by stepping outside them can we see how they might be causing harm. But the question not addressed in the article is about what kind of changes result from these fasts. If it’s like my own attempts to give up chocolate for Lent, then not much long term change happens. I’m grumpy for a few days, eventually get used to not eating it, but when Easter morning dawns, I breakfast on a chocolate bunny and bring chocolate back into my life. I wonder if it is similar for these fasters: we put aside the cell phones and iPads and video games for a few days, but once the fast is over, return to a life of texting and talking and emailing without applying any of the supposed insights we gained.
If the goal is to establish a better relationship to digital media then fasting doesn’t seem to be the right answer. Instead, we might consider the Buddha who, after living a life of wealth, then living a life of austerity, chose his final path to be the Middle Way, one of moderation in all things. Rather than an all or nothing approach of a fast, this might mean setting particular times when you are online versus offline. So, you drop into Twitter for an hour in the morning and afternoon, or you make a list of particular emails to send and answer and when the list is completed, you close your client and move on. Leave your cell phone in the car when you go into dinner. Turn it off when you gather with friends. Choose a day out of the week when you are not digitally available. It seems to me that these are practices that will lead to more long term change and a better overall relationship with media, certainly a lesson that will help both us and our students as we move into an increasingly connected age.