The unplugged home

A growing movement believes that in order to enjoy life to its fullest, you need to do some things the old-fashioned way (translation: technology-free)

 

Uncluttered space
Photo: Thomas J. Story

The first thing you notice about the San Francisco Mission District home of Laura Jo Wegman and Donovan Corliss is that there seems to be an awful lot of space. Wall space, counter space, floor space. It’s as if something is missing. Like TVs, video games, laptops, smartphones, and iPads. That’s because Wegman and Corliss have designated their home a technology-free zone. Their kitchen boasts a basic fridge, dishwasher, and stove—all with no LED interfaces. The phones are rotary dial, and even the clocks are analog, like the 1940s schoolhouse clock they restored with sons Lev, 4, and Ezra, 6, before displaying it in the kitchen.

“I’ve never been into screens and displays and flashing lights. I find them distracting from the things I really care about,” explains Wegman, design director of the organic home-textiles company Coyuchi.

“I think TV and Internet and phones become such a time suck that people feel that they don’t have time for anything else,” says Corliss, a developer for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “They don’t have time to do artwork with their kids or read books or have a conversation with one another.”

Corliss and Wegman always tended toward a low-tech lifestyle but became even more invested after Ezra’s birth. Since minimizing technology in their home, Corliss says that he feels restored. “I feel like I can be more present and that I’m more refreshed.” He says he even sleeps better.

Sure, maybe they get “some eye rolls” when people come over, but what they also get is time. Time to read The New Yorker in its entirety every week; time to bake bread from scratch; time to take their kids hiking and biking.

Wegman and Corliss are at the purist edge of a technology backlash that has been gaining momentum over the past few years. The idea? Unplug yourself and reconnect with an analog way of life. Oddly, the epicenter of this movement is the San Francisco Bay Area, also home to the tech-saturated Silicon Valley, where a smartphone is practically a requirement for residency.

But what “unpluggers” like Corliss and Wegman have decided is that technology, despite its promises to improve our lives and make it more efficient, often distracts us from more meaningful interactions. At the heart of the unplugging movement is a desire, à la Thoreau, to get back to a purer way of living: to rediscover hobbies, use your hands, get outdoors, have a conversation that isn’t mediated by bits and bytes.

Although technology frees us up, it does so almost to a fault. It actually takes us away from the physical act of doing anything, Wegman says. So, for example, she and Corliss grind their own flour for pancakes, then flip through a print edition of the newspaper over a hot breakfast.

The most visible manifestation of the unplugging movement has been the National Day of Unplugging, which started in 2009; and the related Technology Shabbat movement, which advocates a 24-hour digital hiatus every week. Filmmaker and Mill Valley, California, resident Tiffany Shlain started using the phrase “Technology Shabbat” in 2008; in 2010, she decided she wanted to practice it more deeply, after realizing she was inundated with technology. At the time, her father was dying and alert only one hour a day. “During that hour, I would turn off my phone and focus on him,” she recalls. “I began to think a lot about how to be present with the people we live with.”

Every Friday night, Shlain’s family now powers down all their cell phones, laptops, and TVs. Where Saturday mornings used to be fragmented and solitary—the kids watching TV, the parents consuming email with their coffee—it’s now their favorite day of the week, filled with gardening, hiking, and writing (longhand) in journals.

“It’s a deliciously long day,” Shlain says. “Technology speeds up time, and time is relative to your state of motion. When you are moving so quickly with all these devices, time passes really fast.”

Three years into her experiment, Shlain has motivated thousands of others nationwide to start their own Technology Shabbats, many interpreting the term with their own rules and boundaries. But the common refrain that she hears from everyone? “They feel they got their balance back.”

Many unpluggers, like Shlain, begin the technology power-down after having kids, concerned about the impact of ubiquitous technology on developing minds. This was also true for the Corliss/Wegman family. They wanted their kids to have a tactile and immersive childhood. Instead of video games, the family plays board or card games. Ezra and Lev enjoy classic toys like marble runs and wooden trains. In the kitchen, they experiment with old-fashioned cooking gadgets like flour grinders, a hand-crank ice cream maker, and a handpress juicer. Upstairs are two “art studios”—one for the kids, one for Wegman—crammed with imagination-inspiring supplies, the fruits of which decorate every wall of their house.

 

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