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City Lights: Unplugging in a fast-paced digital world

February 27, 2013|By Michael Miller

I'm living an austere lifestyle as I write these words. At least, as austere as possible under the circumstances.

My Twitter and Facebook accounts are logged off. My iPhone, which harbors my Hotmail account and text messages, is in my pocket untouched. My work computer is still on, but I've closed every website except Google and promised myself not to use that one unless I need to for a story.

I'm not exactly Amish, I know. I still have my work email on — if one of my colleagues calls a meeting in the next few minutes, it would be irresponsible of me to miss it — and my landline is plugged in as well. But I've taken at least a few steps to pare my world to a single space and time. In other words, if two of my high school friends are picking apart "Pretty Little Liars" or if a fellow editor is live-tweeting a Lakers game, I'm here in the office and not there with them.

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I realized the need for this experiment after I detected an involuntary twitch in my left forearm this month at the Newport Beach Central Library. I had just sat through a lecture by author Sherry Turkle about her book, "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," which analyzes the ways technology impacts our social and emotional lives — especially if we're "digital natives," Turkle's term for young people who grew up with Twitter and the like.

To a capacity crowd in the library's meeting room, the author talked about some of the phenomena she's witnessed in years of doing research. As a teacher, she once asked students why they texted during lectures, and one replied, "I need to see who wants to be in touch with me." Another example was downright chilling; Turkle described people who tapped their iPhones during funerals because they wanted to escape the "boring bits."

Scandalous? Sure. But on my way out of the library, as I proudly told myself that my attention span far exceeded those of Turkle's subjects, I felt a familiar motion: my left hand sliding into my pants pocket to retrieve my iPhone. I steeled it in place, then felt the urge again seconds later; I hadn't even made it to the door, and already I wanted an update. Had a friend texted me? Was there an email from a colleague? If I waited a half hour until I was home to check my messages, would I be out of the loop?

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