Imagine a world free of Facebook. A world without newspapers, books, text messages and email. No video games. No television. Essentially, a world restricted to a room of blank walls. St. Olaf College professor William Sonnega challenges his students to realize just that each fall in his class, “Media in Contemporary Culture.”
The idea of deliberately unplugging from the mediated world is not new. Sonnega has assigned the deprivation for five or six years, but the concept of intentional disconnection has existed for much longer.
“Most of us, I think, are completely unmindful of the extent to which our lives — and I mean all of our lives — rely on media and not solely for communication but for entertainment, distraction, sense of self and a sense of other,” Sonnega said.
Sonnega’s assignment is two-fold. First, students inventory their media use over 48 hours. Students track their media consumption as precisely as possible, down to the minute. The second portion requires more willpower — 72 hours sans media. Email, Internet, phone use, news consumption and pleasurable reading are all banned. The deprivation even restricts viewing advertisements or being near music, television or other forms of media that are used socially.
In an academic setting, exceptions are inevitable. Students are required to view media in lectures and for the purpose of other classes or work. Accountability is based on trust in accordance with one of Sonnega’s favorite mantras: “You get out of the assignment what you put into it.” This lax structure was intentional.
“If you’re in the deprivation mode and you stop, that’s the moment I’m interested in because [it] represents an opportunity to kind of reconstruct our relationship with the mass media,” Sonnega said. “To reflect on what’s important and what’s not, what’s productive and what’s not, what’s of value and what’s not. And I’m not certain that we can get to those moments any other way.”
This philosophy transformed the assignment from a quantifiable experiment to an opportunity for students to think critically about their media use and consumption.
The 48-hour inventory period revealed that media use is largely individualized. Students spent anywhere from 7.5 to 60 hours plugged in — numbers consistent with previous years’ data. Inventories exceeding 48 hours were possible only with multitasking. An hour of listening to music while researching a paper would count as two hours of media time, and depending on how the individual calculated his or her use, having four Internet tabs open for an hour would count as four hours.
During the assignment, an overwhelming number of students noted an increase in productivity and efficiency because they were not preoccupied with trying to do multiple things at once. They were able to concentrate better and for longer periods of time. They even reported having more free time as a result. This effect was an “unintended positive consequence,” Sonnega explained.
Multitasking is increasingly becoming the norm, according to Sonnega’s observations. More and more students are multitasking, experiencing more and more stimuli. Students write papers, chat on Gmail, check Facebook, eye their email and listen to music simultaneously. The media stimulation becomes the foreground, whereas the “important paper” is diminished to the background.
The absence of music was particularly difficult. Nearly all students reflected on how much they missed having a soundtrack to their lives. This extended far beyond discomfort for one student.
Anders Wennberg experienced 36 hours of sleep deprivation. He often uses television, podcasts and music to relax before bed, but the silence proved too stifling for sleep.
“It has to do with anxiety as well because I can’t fall asleep when I’m thinking too much,” he said.
Surprisingly, this drastic response was not uncommon. Eighty percent of students interviewed reported or joked about being addicted to media. Andi Gomoll, who was forced to make a few exceptions during her deprivation, said, “I felt like a drug addict — constantly making excuses for my ‘slips.’”
Peter Kovic felt as though sites like Facebook are “almost a self-medication.” And in prior years, Sonnega reported that some students were so desperate for stimulation that they called him at home for encouragement.
Though Wennberg would like to try a longer media deprivation in the future, he said it might be hard to explain to family and friends who are used to being able to reach him instantaneously. “I don’t know if they should be getting mad at you, there are ethical issues there, but you’d have to justify it in some way.”
While Wennberg has a right to unplug, he seemingly feels compelled to fulfill the needs of those who want to contact him.
Gomoll resonates with this feeling all too well. “In every conversation for three days I managed to mention that I was in ‘media deprivation.’ This became my identity. The fact that I started using this disclaimer was really telling — why can’t I just live my life without telling these things?” she said.
In this sense, media presents a unique paradox. While people that are too dependent upon another person are often condemned, being addicted to objects and virtual realities is ignored completely and often even expected.
Conversely, overusing media is potentially preventing people from being comfortable in solitude. During the deprivation days, it was harder to meet up with friends due to lack of communication, and activities and conversations were restricted to non-media related premises. They were forced to spend time alone without music or virtual distractions. And for many students, this solitude was unsettling and lonely. The common conception that everyone enjoys his or her alone time may be mythical. It seems that those who bask in solitude are few and far between. Being unplugged propelled students backward to a time when the world was less connected, and they were eerily uncomfortable having grown up in such a mediated world.
Some met the end of the deprivation with enthusiastic media binges. For others, it was somewhat anti-climactic. While students had mixed views about returning to their mediated lives, nearly all participants gained a heightened sense of awareness regarding their media use.
“It furthered my skepticism over the hyper-use of media that we’re all a part of today. I can’t tell if people just ignore it or don’t see it,” Kovic said.
Some even intentionally adopted new habits immediately following the assignment. Wennberg now occasionally powers down his phone while doing homework. Sonnega challenges himself to keep one computer window open at a time, and Gomoll stopped checking email on her cellphone. These changes seem predictable directly following the experiment, but the real question is whether the effects will prevail in a mediated society.
“Will I change my habits? It seems like a no-brainer, but I doubt the answer will be yes. It is hard to swim against the current,” Gomoll said.
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