Monday, March 24, 2014

Empty Free Unplugged

Casey N. Cep:

That is why, I think, the Day of Unplugging is such a strange thing. Those who unplug have every intention of plugging back in. This sort of stunt presents an experiment, with its results determined beforehand; one finds exactly what one expects to find: never more, often less. It’s one of the reasons that the unplugging movement has attracted such vocal criticism from the likes of Nathan Jurgenson, Alexis Madrigal, and Evgeny Morozov. If it takes unplugging to learn how better to live plugged in, so be it. But let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.

It seems like a fairly innocuous and sensible article to me. And yet, Freddie's jimmies have gotten all a-rustled by it. He seems to think that Cep and people like her are overreacting out of feeling threatened by alternative behavior, in which case I can only say, blogger, critique thyself. Really, I don't get any sense whatsoever that she's acting to stamp out heresy. Not everything is an issue of insecure powerbrokers trying to maintain their sweaty grip upon the levers of control. People are just having a conversation, dude, relax.

It's funny, because, looked at from a different angle, this would seem to be the kind of thing he usually criticizes: an impotent yet self-congratulatory little niche movement, another roundabout method of social sorting and status-seeking. Don't get me wrong; I don't have any problem with the Unpluggers myself, and I'm not accusing them of failing to live up to any revolutionary ideals. I'm just agreeing with Cep's basic question: Why bring it up? Why make a "thing" out of it? Most of us cross the digital/meatspace border back and forth on a regular basis without feeling the need to Instagram the occasion. What does it mean to call attention to it?

In other words, rather than simply shut the laptop and go work in the garden for a while with no fanfare, the Unpluggers are consciously differentiating between the two experiences. As the poets might say, they're naming the experiences in order to signify something about them. For example, walking. It's something most of us have been doing since we were toddlers and continue to do when necessary, something we don't often think about. But to someone like Wayne Curtis, walking is an ideological subject in itself. It is a very specific, purposeful action, perhaps even a way of life, with its attendant behaviors, attitudes and values. But by naming something, you're also, if only by implication, calling attention to what it is not. And so, especially for a subject about which not much of interest can be said to begin with, one easy way to create an identity is to contrast the subject with its opposite. Thus walking, rather than being an unremarkable method of locomotion, also becomes a way of contrasting oneself favorably to those who don't walk for pleasure.

What, then, are the Unpluggers signifying by the conspicuous way they go about their business? Why have they decided, like dilettante Amish, to draw the line at technology developed in the last two decades or so? These are perfectly valid questions for someone like Cep to ask. What, this is part of your identity? This is an important ritual behavior for you? Well, okay, that's fine; I'm sure the marketing department is already preparing some targeted ads for your demographic to aid in your quest for an authentic, analog experience. I hope you didn't have any higher aspirations than that, though.