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My Digital Sabbath: how one writer learned to stop checking Facebook and love life offline

My Digital Sabbath

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.

  • jeff borsato

    Well written piece, and I enjoyed the parallels of avoiding technology and religious practices. Unfortunately the pleasure stopped there, this is one of many stories in what has become a Luddite stream of journalism; praising the simple pleasures of a life without technology without making any material commentary on the value of various mediums of communication and entertainment.

    Why do writers feel they must completely abstain from the internet, TV and Blackberry to drive a piece about the ills of modern life? Had the writer considered watching a little less TV, following a little less news on the internet and emailing just that much less, they may have discovered a fine balance.

    Going to museums and parading around in nature are portrayed as the inevitable result of abandoning your Blackberry and TV. Why not allow time for both? Watch a nature show on TV instead of a banal sitcom, when you don’t feel like packing the family up to the Science Centre.

    This story has been done countless times before, it is practically a genre unto itself, one that does little more than allow digital junkies to feel slightly better about their bravery in the face of an increasingly technological and wired world to which they owe much of their success in the medium as we all read this on the internet…

  • Parker

    I use printed maps all the time. I love reading them. So there.

  • Joe D

    I was enjoying the article but then I decided to just shut off my MAC and go eat some breakfast.

  • laurie

    I loved this article, and felt that it was the right balance of loving our devices but recognizing the need to pull back and focus. Forget the cranks, Stephen; I thought it great.

  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

    So what’s Luddite about this perspective? The Luddites destroyed automated machines that threw them out of work; Marche is talking about taking 24 hours off. And he’s not making the kind of case that, say, Sven “Things Were So Much Better When Our Brains Could Still Handle War and Peace” Birkets has made regularly since about 1990: to wit, he’s not arguing that Things Were Better in some hazy past.

    It seems me that the argument that going offline from time to time, in a manner that mimics an age-old religious practice, isn’t anti-technology. It’s pro-human.