Jenna Wortham follows up her piece on unplugging with a post on a response she found interesting: Nathan Jurgenson's argument "against fetishizing the offline and becoming obsessed — and boasting about — our micro-reprieves from the screen."
Jurgenson is making two important arguments. First (as Wortham summarizes), is that claim that
despite what we may think... despite our best efforts, we are never fully disconnected. That paradigm simply doesn’t exist anymore; the impact of technology is far too deep. We’ve gazed into the abyss long enough that its begun to gaze back.
Second, as Jurgenson argues in a recent essay on "the IRL fetish," we treat going offline as some kind of exotic treat, a sign of how plugged-in we are:
Many of us, indeed, have always been quite happy to occasionally log off and appreciate stretches of boredom or ponder printed books — even though books themselves were regarded as a deleterious distraction as they became more prevalent. But our immense self-satisfaction in disconnection is new. How proud of ourselves we are for fighting against the long reach of mobile and social technologies! One of our new hobbies is patting ourselves on the back by demonstrating how much we don’t go on Facebook. People boast about not having a profile. We have started to congratulate ourselves for keeping our phones in our pockets and fetishizing the offline as something more real to be nostalgic for. While the offline is said to be increasingly difficult to access, it is simultaneously easily obtained — if, of course, you are the “right” type of person.
Here's what wrong with this argument.
First, it conflates the technological meanings of "online" and "offline," and the social or enacted meanings of the terms. When "the IRL fetish" talks about online, it means both a collection of behaviors and a set of technologies; Wortham, in contrast, sees online as something you do, not something that is layered into the folds of reality. Jurgenson's essay starts from the premise that online is simply a hardware category, an inescapable feature of the physical (or hybrid physical/digital) world. Claiming that you're "offline" is as laughable as claiming that you've escaped gravity by jumping on a trampoline.
Wortham, and everyone else who experiments with digital sabbaths, treats online and offline as activities, as verbs rather than nouns, as psychological states, and as things they can choose. For her, being offline is something you do. Online is the pressure to keep with, to pay attention to the connection, to tweet and Like; offline is relief from all those pressures.
Second, "the IRL fetish" argument turns "logic"-- the logic of the machine, of ideologies, of unthinking everyday practices-- into inevitability. Like the prison-house of language, we're now so wrapped up in the logic of the network that we can't see how it affects us (not without superhuman effort, anyway).
In contrast, for Wortham and digital sabbatarians, going offline is an assertion of your ability-- despite the best efforts of companies to produce addictive, dopamine squirt-generating experiences that keep you hooked to your devices and allow them to turn your attention into a commodity-- to direct the contents of your consciousness, as William James put it. It's a declaration that, all efforts to convince us otherwise, we still have choices and agency in our high-tech world. And it's a recognition of the pleasures that come from rediscovering and using that choice.
Finally, the claim that going offline is merely a fetishized commodity that advertises how special you are-- like a homemade Martha Stewart-inspired centerpiece, or a plate of gluten-free treats brought to the kids' soccer game, or an ecotourist vacation to a Central American resort run by indigenous peoples-- doesn't appreciate what people are trying to do when they go offline.
I've spent a lot of time interviewing digital Sabbatarians for my book, and for the ones who do it regularly, it's not just about "unplugging." It's not simple an absence, and they're often kind of reluctant to talk about it. As one person put it, "You don't need to tell people you're going offline, because that gives them a chance to object." (The big exception is writers, who are-- guess what?-- writing about it. Because this is what writers do.) Instead, for them it's a chance to enjoy the pleasure of making the choice to be offline; to engage deeply with things in a way that's hard to do in the rapid-response, real-time, surf-and-jump world of online life; and ultimately to step into an alternate kind of time, an alternate experience of time.
To me, the best description of that time is in an unexpected place: Abraham Heschel's wonderful 1951 book The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. The Sabbath is a reflection on the meaning and value of the Sabbath; it doesn't concern itself with how to observe the Sabbath, but with the deepest meaning of the day. It's a jewel, small, multifaceted and brilliant, and one of the foundations of Heschel's reputation as one of the twentieth century's most prominent Jewish theologians.
Heschel argues that the Sabbath contains some radical ideas. It's radically egalitarian: everyone, including servants and the poor—and even beasts of burden—have the right to enjoy the day. Ancient religions organized themselves around sacred places: gods were local creatures who lived in groves or forests or mountains, and priests could identify a specific site as the center of creation. The Sabbath, in contrast, declares that time is sacred, not place: in the account of Genesis, the world is "good," but only the Sabbath day is "holy." In contrast to place-based religions, Heschel concludes, Judaism "is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time," and the Bible encourages readers to recognize that "every hour is unique and the only one given at a moment, exclusive and endlessly precious."
All time is special, but foremost in Judaism's "architecture of time," the pinnacle of its rituals and commemorations, is the Sabbath. "The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time," he says, and even among Jewish rituals it is uniquely focused on giving practitioners a taste of the holy and eternal. The timing of most events in the Jewish calendar are set by nature or history, but the Sabbath's rhythm isn't tied to the lunar cycle or seasons. Rather, it mimics the cycle of Creation itself, and that rhythm exhorts believers to see time and space the way God made them. In this way, "the essence of the Sabbath is completely detached from the world of space." The Sabbath offers an opportunity to "become attuned to holiness in time," by building a "palace in time… made of soul, of joy and rectitude… a reminder of adjacency to eternity."
Heschel's ideas about time, renewal, and the relationship of the Sabbath to normal life, can help us unlock the real value of digital Sabbaths.
The central vision of the Sabbath as explicitly standing outside normal time, as a standing invitation us to experience a completely different sort of time, is as useful as ever. In ways that Heschel did not predict but would have appreciated, today's digital devices and virtual spaces create a terribly intimate "tyranny of things." We labor as people always have, "for the sake of things." But, Heschel continues, "possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations.... Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness, they are a threat to our very lives." Sound familiar?
Today, we live surrounded with objects that demand constant attention, and we conduct our everyday work and social lives through technologies that are used to compress our experience of time, to replace the rhythms of days and bodily metabolisms with the 24/7 "real time" of networks and markets. Sixty years later, Heschel's warning that "we are more harassed than supported by the Frankensteins of spatial things" seems truer than ever, now that those Frankensteins have begun to demand their creators' attention and love.
What Heschel offers is a day in which it's all right to step away from all of that. For one day a week, it's all right to "collect rather than to dissipate time," to "mend our scattered lives." Heschel's Sabbath is a counterbalance against modern "technical civilization," a way "to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity."
Finally, for Heschel the Sabbath isn't just a day of "rest," in the sense of mindless leisure or diversion. The seventh day was not the end of creation, but its culmination: it was the day when God created happiness and tranquility, finished creation, and perfected the universe.
Consequently, Heschel argues, we're obliged to recreate that happiness and tranquility. Further, he warns, "rest without spirit [is] the source of depravity. In other words, Sabbath rest is not a passive thing, but an active one. Avoiding work, for Heschel, did not mean being inactive. It meant avoiding the kinds of economic, "productive" busyness that occupied us for the other six days of the week, in order to create a space in which one could do other, more important things, and do them well. "Labor is a craft," he says, "but perfect rest is an art. To attain a degree of excellence in art, one must accept its discipline, one must adjure slothfulness." Heschel wasn't advocating passive rest, in other words, but restoration.
People who have practiced digital Sabbaths for a long time use it to rebuild themselves, to reengage with friends, to relearn and exercise treasured pre-digital abilities, to do whatever they feel reconnects them with the real world. Turning off the million little requests and interactions that cascade into distraction and exhaustion is good, but trying to recover your mind by just unplugging is like trying to fix a building by abandoning it. The digital Sabbath not just defined by what you turn off and ignore, but by how you respect and use the silence. It is, to borrow Heschel's description of the Jewish Sabbath, "the silence of abstaining from noisy acts."
This is where digital Sabbatarians are headed. They intuit that behind the language of disconnection lies an opportunity to do something very profound: to mend our relationship with time, to learn how to collect rather than dissipate time, to experience a more majestic, mystical time-- one that lengthens your capacity for attention, your appreciation of presence, and your ability to make meaning in life.
But you can't do that if you believe that there is no longer any such thing as different forms of time; if you don't believe that some of those kinds of time can provide a refuge from busyness and networks; or that you still have a choice about when and how to step outside and offline.