I can’t say specifically which fabulous new technology made me decide I needed a break from all fabulous new technologies. For years I had been blissfully work-playing and play-working in the miasma of plugged-in life, writing magazine columns while live-streaming baseball games and listening to music and IMing and playing online chess and checking my email every two minutes, and not worrying whether performing five or six tasks simultaneously might limit my ability to perform any of them adequately. Maybe it was the iPad, a device designed, as far as I can tell, to allow you to watch television while you’re watching television. A friend told me about trying to talk to her teenage son while he was on his iPhone. “Why are you always looking at that thing when I’m trying to talk to you?” she asked. He answered: “Where do you think I learned it from, Mom?”
My own household seemed headed down a similar path. I needed to step away. I needed to go look at a tree. I discussed it with my wife, who was feeling similarly tech-ed out, and we made a monumental family decision. We were going to impose a digital Sabbath. Because my wife is Jewish, our Sabbath goes from Friday night to Saturday night. Though we discussed various options—TV but no email? Google Maps but no cellphones?—in the end we went with a hard line: no screens of any kind. No BlackBerrys, no cellphones, no iPads, no laptops, no TV.
The first thing I discovered is how surprisingly difficult it is to live without screens, and not just because of the obvious inconveniences. There’s a wide-ranging and largely unresolved debate between sociologists and neurologists, much of it centred on Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, about how deeply the Internet is affecting our brain chemistry. All I can say is that my own brain is overwhelmed by the absence of screens on Friday night. I’m jittery, like my mind is a crumpled piece of paper uncrumpling. The digital Sabbath makes me realize how deeply the tendency toward distraction has been ingrained in my consciousness. It’s hard for me just to play Lego with my son. It’s hard just to read a newspaper.