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)


An alternative to TV
Photo: Thomas J. Story

“I don’t think of it so much as subtracting as adding,” Corliss explains. It’s as if eliminating the physical clutter of cords and monitors has freed up more empty room in their minds for creativity.

Many of the pleasures of their low-tech life are simple ones that are frequently lost in the hustle of digital living. The daily subscription to a print newspaper, for example. And when friends come over for dinner, conversations tend to linger, uninterrupted by cell phones, while the kids build forts, put on puppet shows, or kick a ball around outside. “We have dinner without the TV and the Internet, and this blinking and that going off. I can complete a whole phrase and idea,” Wegman says.

Still, both parents insist that they aren’t puritans. Both own laptops and iPhones, lightly used for things like Google Maps or booking flights online (at a minimum in front of the kids, though, because they like to keep the home space pure). They even have a TV stashed on the floor of their closet, which gets pulled out of hiding every two years. “I’m an Olympics junkie,” Wegman confesses. But do they miss technology in their home? Not at all.

Okay, maybe a little: “Heating up milk for the children, in a pot at 3 in the morning?” Corliss recalls. “Oh my goodness. I wished I had a microwave.”


Here’s what others are doing––and what you can try––from easy to hard-core.

National Day of Unplugging. Who’s behind it: Reboot, a Jewish arts organization based in New York. What it is: Unplug all your devices from sunset to sunset on March 1–2, 2013. Insight: In its fourth year, the National Day of Unplugging has participants from around the world turning off their TVs, phones, and computers for 24 hours. “This is the zeitgeist of the moment,” says NDU spokeswoman Tanya Schevitz. Reboot also wrote the Sabbath Manifesto’s 10 principles.

Walden Zones. Who’s behind it: William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (Harper Perennial, 2011; $15). What it is: Designate space in your house as a tech-free zone. Put a basket at the door for cell phones. Insight: “In the beginning, we had total withdrawal, which made us realize how addicted we were,” recalls Powers.  “After a few months, we began to realize all these incredible benefits. It’s like adding a room to your house—a space where you can live differently.”

The Digital Detox. Who’s behind it: S.F. Bay Area residents Levi Felix and Brooke Dean. What it is: Retreats in remote Northern California locales without any devices. Insight: Former tech and social entrepreneur Felix launched the Digital Detox after he ended up in the hospital due to a stress-related condition. “When I got out, I started reevaluating everything,” he says. At his monthly Detox, participants ditch all gadgets for long weekends of activities like cooking and hiking. He also holds device-free gatherings in San Francisco.

Technology Shabbats. Who’s behind it: Tiffany Shlain. What it is: Powering down, usually from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. Insight: “It’s definitely harder to make plans, and we have to print out our schedules the day before,” Shlain says, laughing. “Instead of sending 10 texts to coordinate, we just show up. If we’re late, there will be no cell phone call. It’s the way everyone used to do things.”

Unplug your house. Who’s tried it: The Wegman/Corliss family. What it is: Keep technology at a minimum in your home. Insight: People have visited the house, Wegman says, and talked about how “they should” do this. But she doesn’t know anyone else who has tried it yet.

Give up your smartphone. Who’s tried it: Northern Californian Andrew Tyree. What it is: Give up your app-filled smartphone for something simpler. Insight: As a restaurant worker, Tyree was irked by people’s preoccupation of texting and tweeting during meals. He realized he was no better and switched from his smartphone to an app-less flip phone. He finds that he’s more engaged in the moment and now knows his city, San Francisco, better since he no longer has Google Maps.


Read these books: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011; $17) by Sherry Turkle. Explores how excessive digital connection leads to solitude. Also, Hamlet’s BlackBerry by William Powers (see “Walden Zones,” above). Through technological history and the likes of Shakespeare and Thoreau, discover why it’s so important to disconnect regularly.

Watch this DVD: Connected, directed by Tiffany Shlain. A film about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. $25;

Download these apps: Freedom (for Macs and PCs) temporarily disables your Internet access. $10;; Anti-Social (for Macs) temporarily disables all social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. $15;

Change settings: Do Not Disturb (on iPhones) blocks all calls, texts, and notifications from coming through. You can schedule the setting for certain times too.


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