Interview: Susan Maushart (author, The Winter of Our Disconnect)

Journalist Susan Maushart disconnected herself (and her family) from smartphones, email and the Web for six months to find out just how hooked she was on technology. It’s a prospect that, frankly, gives me great terror, but after six months off, Maushart, who lives in New York, lived to tell the tale.

She wrote about her experience in a book released earlier this year called The Winter of Our Disconnect: How One Family Pulled the Plug on their Technology and Lived to Tell/Text/Tweet the Tale. Curious about the highs and lows of a life without technology, I contacted her for Untangling the Web.

Which incidents/events/observations specifically inspired you to take a digital detox?

The short answer is simply that I was worried about my kids – how they seemed to be living their lives “screened,” literally, from what my son with no irony whatsoever called RL (Real Life). To be honest, I wasn’t that far behind them. My relationship with my iPhone had all the intensity of an illicit affair. I even gave it a pet name and started buying it outfits … And then I re-read Walden, my favorite book in the universe, and that experience – plus the fact that I was  menopausal (lol!) – pretty much pushed me over the edge. You know how you’re not ready to go to re-hab ‘til you reach rock bottom? Well, we’d reached it. It was a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures.

What do you feel are the greatest pressures to stay connected?

There’s our guilt as parents. There’s the matter of our turbo-charged work-ethic, which has convinced us it’s a good thing to blur the boundaries between work and home. There’s the pleasure principle – getting intermittent “updates” in the form of information or entertainment stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains in the same way that playing a slot machine does. There’s the seldom-discussed but ever-insistent siren song of conspicuous consumption, whereby s/he who was the latest upgrade wins. We abjure this tendency in our kids – but as adults we are every bit as susceptible. There’s the fear of boredom – which is culturally constructed of course and at present has reached epidemic proportions.  And then there are the biases of the devices themselves. We like to think that they are tools and we are the masters. If only life were that simple! As the proverb reminds us, “To a man with a hammer, the whole world looks like nail.”

How have your relationships with people you were used to communicating with via technology change in the short term, and how have they changed in the long-term? How did they adapt to your offline status?

My colleagues initially panicked, assuming that I was having a midlife crisis or maybe a good old fashioned breakdown. (Because, come on. No email? No PHONE? Who does that?!) Even my family were pretty alarmed at first. But relationships remained intact – and most of the important ones not only did not deteriorate. They deepened. When all you can do is communicate by letter, or face to face, or via landline you cease to connect in soundbytes. You can’t anymore. It’s rude. So the slowing down entails a drilling down. Our relationships with one another as a family were changed dramatically because of this. We went from a family that basically transmitted data (“come to the dinner table”, “sign this”, “get in the car now” ) to a family that communicated. And by that I don’t mean that we sat around having D&Ms all day. On the contrary in some ways. We regained the lost art of hanging out and shooting the breeze.

Can you give me an example of how you feel you (and/or a member of your family) have changed cognitively because of your holiday from digital technologies?

Our attention spans definitely grew. We remembered how to read whole books – all of us. My kids forcible retirement from multi-tasking, I am convinced, enabled them to be soooo much more efficient at completing schoolwork. My youngest daughter in particular underwent a massive mood stabilization experience … almost certainly the result of repaying a long-standing sleep debt. I think we all became more reflective – I know I did – simply because we’d cleared a little headspace for our own use. I also think we experienced deeper levels of relaxation, physical relaxation, which helped us cognitively as well. I remember watching my son in his bedroom, staring at the shadows on the wall and listening to jazz … a very different cognitive environment from zapping targets in a first-person shooter game.

How have you integrated what you learned during your time away from tech into a life that once again includes tech?

It’s ironic that, for me, the biggest outcome of The Experiment was making the decision to move back home to New York (after 25 years in Australia) – and as a result I feel like I LIVE on Skype! My youngest daughter, still in high school, is here with me on Long Island. But my two older kids are in university in Australia, and literally not a day goes by without multiple texts, MMSes, phonecalls, emails and Facebook messages – and often all of the above! I am terribly grateful to be living at time and in a place where such things are possible. Having said that, you can’t step in the same river twice.  Having been through such a lengthy period of ‘de-tox’, there is no way you can ever go back to using media uncritically again. The biggest change for all of us, I think it’s fair to say, is the recognition that one needs to use media – and live life - deliberately (to use one of Thoreau’s favourite words).