Monday, August 3, 2009

Five readers go on digital diet, and live to write about it

Five readers with real addictions to their virtual connections were put on a digital diet. Two abstained for 48 hours, the others for five days. All found their analog lives simpler and yet richer: Moments they may have missed before — a lazy summer porch chat with a neighbor, a meaty passage in a novel — became more meaningful. A sample of their digital-free diaries.

Web editor

Affliction description: Rodgers relies on her iPhone 3G for "everything," from jotting down to-do lists to reading downloaded Scripture in church to setting the alarm — currently programmed to sound like a duck. It quacks not just to wake her up, but throughout the day, reminding her to, say, take her Claritin. "I know. It's ridiculous." It's also her conversation crutch. "I text more than I talk. I'm almost afraid that sometimes I don't know how to communicate with people." She says her phone is not just smart, it's tantamount to her second brain.

VIRTUAL UNREALITY: Tethered to technology

Day 1: Rodgers "actually got to work on time," instead of 10 to 15 minutes late (so what if it was to check up on things she normally soaks up at 6 a.m. on her iPhone — news and gossip, the weather, her horoscope). At home, she found herself talking more, on the seldom-used landline. That night she went out to one of her regular dinners with her parents, sister and brother-in-law. Their phones, typically as common a presence as water glasses, stayed stowed.

Day 2: With little to do but pop in a DVD after work, Rodgers attended to some long-neglected chores: cleaning up, washing clothes and folding clothes that had lingered in a heap for too long. "It was a workout," she says. "It was a lot of walking back and forth, putting stuff away that should have been put away weeks ago."

Revelation: The experiment "helped me realize how much a distraction my phone has been," Rodgers says. "I'm trying to limit myself from relying on it so much."

Still, when the day came to roll off the wireless-free wagon and back into cyberspace, "I was so excited, oh, my God." A day later, on a Sunday, she lugged her laptop to her parents', where the gang (minus her brother-in-law) was gathering, their individual laptops opened up side-by-side on folding tray tables. "We're supposed to be visiting with my parents, and we're all doing our own thing on our laptops," from burning CDs to checking Facebook. "It was really nice outside, and we could have gone for a walk or something, but, no, we were inside." Dinner was eaten from plates perched by the computers.

"I was just like, 'Wow, this is too funny,' " Rodgers recalls. Still, "the important thing is we were together."

Darien, Conn.
Works in corporate marketing

Affliction description: Though she has had her BlackBerry for about two years, it wasn't until six months ago, when she downloaded the Twitter and Facebook applications, that thumbing became an obsession. "It has ruled my life ever since. It's sick," says Hackman. "I hear the buzzing noise and I must drop everything to check."

After three full days of sending hourly tweets during a technology conference in California, Hackman was as ready for a virtual vacation as she'd ever be.

Day 1: Back home Saturday morning, after a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call from her two boys, "I'm sitting here wanting to check Twitter," she jotted down. "It's a great time to get caught up. I guess I could watch TV right now." Instead, she took her family for a walk. She wanted to bring her cellphone (which had made the journey back East) and catch up with her sister or mother. But leaving it was "nice." She reflected on her week. She sang Old MacDonald with her sons.

But then, while walking under a bridge, she announced that she'd read on Twitter that ducks were the only animal whose sound doesn't echo. Her husband, Guy, huffed. "He was like, 'Lucy, how do you know that's true?' I said, 'You could Wikipedia it.' He said, 'You have such a problem because Wikipedia is people making up that crap.' "

Her mom stopped by for 15 minutes and decreed, "You do have a problem because you know what? We never sit outside and chat like this."

That night, during dinner at their house with friends, Guy sounded like "just a sad little puppy dog" as he explained how he was thrilled that he was wife was paying more attention to him now than in the past six months.

"I didn't have this thing attached to me," Lucy Hackman says. "We were doing things together. I wasn't running inside and checking things on the BlackBerry."

Day 2: Sunday morning, Hackman walked to town to pick up the paper for the first time in a couple of months. But by that afternoon, "I didn't feel good." She was jonesing for a Twitter-delivered pop-culture fix. She thought, "Maybe people think I'm dead because I haven't put something up (on Facebook) in three whole days." Sundays are when good things happen on Facebook: Maybe her friends tied one on the night before and are now posting something funny about it? Lazing away the day as a Luddite was "hard."

Still, she and Guy cooked a shrimp dish for dinner, "maybe because we had more time?" And they actually retired to their room, together. (Lucy usually lingers in the kitchen for those last 10 minutes, pounding away at her you-know-what, which is verboten in the bedroom.) It was "nice."

Revelation: Her BlackBerry back, Hackman intends on modifying her digital diet. "I think I have to." She loves going digital, but her husband doesn't, "and I need to respect that he doesn't."

Hilton, N.Y.
Secretary and online college student

Affliction description: Renz taps away — at her AIM, her Facebook, her Yahoo e-mail — almost as often as she blinks. During an overnight shift at the hospital where she works, she'll text the full eight hours, until her Pantech Slate battery is nearly dead. Sometimes she'll reach a hand into her pocket, grab her phone and just hold onto it, running her fingers over the buttons blindly, without sending any messages. "It's kind of weird," she admits.

Dialogue with her boyfriend typically goes something like this:

Christopher Bryce: "Do I have to text you just to get your attention some days? That's so messed up."

Renz: "Am I really that bad?"

Bryce: "Yes, you are that bad."

Day 1: Post-exam, Renz was aching to hop on her phone and tell friends how she did. "But I'm like, 'Don't touch it!' It's killing me."

Day 2: Work, which ran from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., was "freaking brutal." With no paperwork to fill out, or phone to fiddle with, "I wanted to bash my head into a wall." Instead, Renz walks outside for five minutes to watch a thunderstorm. She meanders up and down the halls, "just to get out of my chair." When she didn't hear the dings of her phone (silently stored in her book bag under her desk), she thought, 'This really can't be happening. People can't be ignoring me like this! I feel neglected.' " So she sought out a nurse on the floor and chatted her up for 10 minutes. "I even talked to the housekeeper guy."

Day 3: Renz felt "so accomplished." She emptied out her ex-boyfriend's junk. She hung some pictures. She spent the day with her son. Bryce is starting to fear the aftermath, "that I'll have to make up for lost time, that I'll disappear for three days answering messages."

Day 4: She forgot to bring her smartphone (her security pellet even if it's off) to work — not so smart. "Today I have nothing on me but a pen, and I'll tell you right now I am not liking that one bit," she says. "It truly feels like withdrawal: nothing to grab, nothing to check, nothing to look at. I'm here again at my desk staring at the screen and all I can think of is, 'Where is my phone and what time will it be getting here?' "

Day 5: Renz has been getting to bed earlier and waking up earlier. She has been bonding with her son, Landon. As Bryce cooked dinner in the kitchen, Renz and Landon bounced around the adjoining living room for "a good two hours," dancing to the likes of Nickelback and the Spice Girls. "That happens rarely." She and Bryce have been bonding over games of gin, played the old-fashioned, paper-card way. "I thought, 'Wow, that's almost foreign.' " Bryce's assessment: "I like that when you come home, you pay attention to me instead of everything that has a battery."

Revelation: So she spent all day of her first day Sunday being reconnected sequestered in the bubble of her bedroom with some device in her hands, whether her iPod Touch or Pantech Slate. "I told my boyfriend I was taking a break from reality. I told him I didn't want to be a girlfriend or a mom or a student that day." Even when she was eating, she was texting.

Renz is trying to make more time for her family, but "I still like the 'me time' with my gadgets," she says. Nonetheless, Bryce "seems more irritated now if I'm on something because he knows I can do without and survive."

Works in IT support for a home builder

Affliction description: At a Christmas party back in 2004 or 2005, the boss's wife walked up to Soto and gave him "a good ribbing" about how she hates that her husband never puts his phone down. "Back then, I vowed to never become one of those people," Soto says. "I am now one of those people."

Day 1: Soto arrived at work at 7:45 a.m. For the next 13 minutes (he's a very precise kind of guy), he's typically sitting in his truck, flicking through MSNBC and CNN on his iPhone 3GS. Instead, he listened to a local radio talk show, twitching. "I felt very hungry" for information.

During a diner breakfast earlier that morning, Soto noticed "how many people are not aware of their surroundings. They're not paying attention to their things." A woman sat there, "chitchatting with her friends and texting at same time," while her purse dangled from the side of her chair, an easy target for pickpockets. "They're so concentrated on, Did I get a text? Did I get an e-mail? I'm pretty sure that's me, too, which is frightening and funny at the same time."

On the job, Soto asked around for extra projects, to help distract his mind. He rebuilt his computer during downtime. "It was pretty much the equivalent of cleaning my desk."

That night, he turned on the Houston Astros vs. the St. Louis Cardinals game. "I'm watching the guy coming up to bat and thinking, 'OK, what are his stats against a particular pitcher?' I want to find out more about him." And he couldn't, at least not from the comfort of his couch. He wanted to order Pizza Hut via the company's iHut app, but the never-used Yellow Pages in the hall remained uncracked.

Day 2: Soto ran into an old friend at lunch at Chick-fil-A. With no keypad to punch, Soto wrote down his number on his hand. (He had to ask the woman behind the register for a pen.)

"I don't miss (digital connectivity) as much as I thought I would," Soto said. "It makes me realize I don't need as much tech as I thought I did." The old methods of communicating, fact-gathering and getting entertained "still work."

Still, on the job, he was trying to figure out how to slyly segue from a Bing search for Citrix to something that might cough up information about the latest Astros game. "How do I do six digital degrees of Kevin Bacon?"

Day 3: Tonight, atypically for the workweek, he headed to his parents' house "because there's not much else to do." They watched Wheel of Fortune over plates of spaghetti, like they did when he was a child. "It was interesting, nostalgic." Usually, he drops by briefly on weekend mornings, to pick up his mail and grab breakfast.

Day 4: Soto is honing drumming skills, the old-fashioned kind. Because he can't listen along to the songs (Nirvana's Sappy and Metallica's Cyanide) he was practicing via iTunes, he has been reading sheet music instead. "It's introducing more structure and better timing and rhythm."

Day 5: Soto used to surf an adult-oriented message board, posting several hundred times a day to, say, their political and humor sections, but he has found "I didn't nearly miss it as much as I thought." He doesn't want to be a post-addict. "This step back is a good thing. I found out I don't need to be consumed by it."

Revelation: No matter that the night before his iPhone went live again he picked up the Wii and PlayStation power cords he'd stowed at his parents' house "to prevent temptation" in anticipation of a digital overdose (and subsequent hangover). A few nights after Soto's newfangled tech was restored, he experienced a relatively old-school epiphany: As he lay in bed with his headphones on and his eyes closed, for the first time he could visualize writing the sheet music as the beat was pounded out. "I was like, 'OK, that's pretty cool.' "

Government worker
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Affliction description: Back in March, Stover sent out an electronic "It's a boy!" birth announcement, complete with picture, when she upgraded to a burgundy BlackJack II from Samsung. She nicknamed "him" Jack. "Yes, I am a gadget nut," she wrote. The postscript? "That loud thump you heard was my dad fainting when he opened his e-mail inbox and read the subject line."

Since then, Jack has accompanied her 24/7. A news junkie, Stover cruises everything from TMZ to BBC to get her fix. While she watched the movie The Hangover the other week, CNN beeped through with news of Walter Cronkite's death. "I'm usually the town crier." When messages come in and Jack goes ping, "it's like Pavlov's dogs": Stover begins to salivate (at least metaphorically) with anticipation. Her friends, by the way, are "really tired" of the fact that Jack has a camera.

Day 1: "I'm hurting," Stover said, laughing. "I'm itching. I've broken out into a rash." A co-worker teased her incessantly: "Did you see the news?" Stover shot back, "You need to shut that up." Still, she brought her local paper to work today, instead of tossing it, unopened, into the recycling bin.

"I feel like I'm mourning," she said. "Like I've lost my best friend." The 12-year-old son of her flesh-and-blood best friend, meanwhile, was betting she would not make it through the week.

But Stover was optimistic. "The thing I'm really looking forward to is reading" — something that doesn't glow, that is. "I love cracking the bind on that new book. I love the texture and seeing the fiber on that page." A year or two ago, she never went anywhere without a paperback in her pocketbook. These days, of course, Jack, not Jack London, is more likely to occupy such significant real estate.

Even if Jack gets offended over his exile (Stover's fear), her two cats and two dogs are going to love it "because I'm not sitting there ignoring them." Indeed, she spent her first night in one of the old wicker rockers on her front porch, giving herself a pedicure and playing with the animals. I'll go out there sometimes and think, 'I forgot how nice this is.' One of most peaceful sounds is to go out there and listen to nothing," except for maybe the early rumbles of a storm.

Her best friend of 40 years and her sponsor for the week, Michelle Edwards, called to check in on Stover's progress (or regress?). "I had only one concern," Edwards wrote in an update sent to mutual friends. "Jack was watching TV with her."

Stover confirmed the report. "He was on the table right beside me, but," she said, "he wasn't on."

Day 2: "I don't know what I think about this anymore," Stover revealed. Jack was like an unopened Christmas present now: "I'm very tempted to turn him on, just to see if I have any e-mails," but then, "Jack might tell on me."

And then there was the crape myrtle tree in her side yard, whose lacy lilac limbs, at their blooming peak, were just begging to be snapped by Jack.

"I miss my (physically distant but digitally connected) friends the most," Stover said — proof point of Jack's critical, ambassadorial role.

Day 3: "My friend says the third day after surgery is always the worst," Stover said. "Well, that's about how I came out today."

As Edwards put it: She's "still on the wagon, but today the wagon had wobbly wheels."

Waiting in the doctor's office (she took the day off from work), she was relegated to flipping through a story about Jon and Kate Gosselin — from May, back when they were Jon and Kate. Waiting for 10 minutes in the examining room, she was consigned to study a picture of Ted Williams mid-swing (though she admits he looked handsome) and a paperweight with a dust mite embedded in it. If Jack had been there, his powers would have been "in full swing": Googling Williams, e-mailing pictures of the dingy lobby.

After successfully hunting down a pay phone ("I was afraid I wasn't going to find one"), Stover then headed to a local bookstore and picked up a fresh batch of paperbacks, including Cronkite's autobiography, A Reporter's Life, (he had died the previous weekend) for $7. She chatted for a while with a couple of ladies about what new and interesting books were out. With Stover's eyes raised from Jack's screen, "I do find that I'm engaging more with the public."

In search of another surrogate phone, Stover stopped at the house of her 70-year-old farmer father. He reached into his bib overalls and pulled out his Razr flip-phone.

At home, a friend from Georgia called her landline."It's freaking me out that you're not on the Internet," she said. But, toward the end of the conversation, she added, "It's actually kind of inspiring. I really need to cut mine off."

Day 4: Stover had gotten inspired herself — to reach back to the cache of letters she exchanged with her friends during their days at UNC-Charlotte. She wanted to collate them chronologically into a journal, "to see what was on our minds back then," and then she was going to handwrite new letters to those same college buddies. "I cannot remember the last time I put pen to paper like that."

A man called out of the blue at work: "Fran, this is Jack. Why are you ignoring me?" (It was her husband, Michael, disguising his voice.) "It actually startled me for a minute. Then I laughed."

By now she has realized she can live without Jack; she just chooses not to. (Although without him or a working watch, she finds herself wondering what time it is.)

Day 5: Today was "stellar," Stover reported. She had a bit of an epiphany in the elevator lobby at work. "I needed this. I had been going along at a pace where I felt like staying in tune with the 'world' was almost more important than anything else, at a cost of clarity and face time and concentration." She needed to slow the tech train down a bit.

"I anticipate a glorious reunion with (Jack), but I hope and foresee our relationship takes on a different stance. It's been a fun week. It's been a stressful week. It's been annoying, liberating and eye-opening. But I'm so glad I did it."

Michael is known to "fuss at me" during concerts for yanking out Jack and snapping pictures and shooting videos. "He's like, 'Just enjoy the concert, enjoy the music!' " On the way home from seeing The Ugly Truth, alone in her car, Stover started surfing radio stations at a time when she would typically be surfing Jack. "I went from Luther Vandross to Pink Floyd to Blake Shelton, and I just enjoyed myself thoroughly. And I just kept thinking, 'You know what? I feel free. I just feel free from being tied to anything.' And it was so great."

Revelation: Stover turned Jack on at midnight. "He sang like a piano. He lit up like a slot machine," his purple flashing light working overtime. Her first Google search? Ted Williams, to see if he was "really hot after all."

At 3:30 a.m., she sent a reflective missive to 11 of her nearest and dearest, writing that it was "surprisingly refreshing" to have lived "more in that proverbial moment that is passing me by with every text and e-mail I send and every news site I pull up on Jack."

She's making a concerted effort to continue the kind of real, vs. virtual, connection she forged at the bookstore the other day. Instead of holing up inside with, she sat out on the porch one night with her husband, neighbors and their dogs for a solid hour (Jack stayed perched on the railing). Her Jack obsession "has really slacked off": She chose reading Cronkite's book over cruising Cronkite headlines. Even with the suspected North Carolina terrorist ring in the news, she hasn't felt "the incessant need to be in the know."

So does that mean Stover will tuck Jack away during, say, lunch-and-drinks dates? "Let's not be hasty!"