NORTHFIELD, Minn. - Jason Hitchcock was suffering withdrawal pains as he entered a room of Carleton College students who had pledged to give up the digital life for 24 hours. That meant no e-mail. No on-demand TV shows, iTunes or streaming news. ...
NORTHFIELD, Minn. - Jason Hitchcock was suffering withdrawal pains as he entered a room of Carleton College students who had pledged to give up the digital life for 24 hours. That meant no e-mail. No on-demand TV shows, iTunes or streaming news. Break out the No. 2 pencils and college-ruled paper: No word processing, either.
A political science major, Hitchcock rated his difficulty with computer-free life at a maximum 10 and scribbled "Agh" next to his name on a sign-in sheet.
Three Carleton students working on a documentary film project, to be completed in the spring, went computer-free recently. It was, they said, in the name of curiosity about their own and society's dependence on computers. They challenged others to join them.
Hitchcock, a senior, was one of several dozen students participating in the daylong social experiment.
"I'm finding that this was a stupid pledge to make," said Hitchcock, who ironically and accidentally sported a T-shirt for a Web site where he is a top user.
About a dozen students gathered to socialize face to face instead of online via the social networking Web site Facebook.com , where users can virtually hug, head-butt and high-five friends without ever physically touching them - or buy them virtual gifts, including a bonsai tree that grows over time.
As senior Mitchell Lundin, one of eight students working on the documentary and one of three trying life tech-free, put it, "This is real life standing in for Facebook, which is standing in for real life."
"Someone said, 'Wow, I admire you,'" said Caitlin Magnusson, a junior who is also among the tech-free three. "It's like I'm training for a marathon."
Magnusson mummified her computer in paper and duct tape before shoving it into a closet to avoid temptation.
Magnusson, Lundin and Andrew Tatge vowed to use typewriters for academic papers and use phones instead of e-mail and instant messages. At times, they have chased people down on foot to talk to them.
They have turned to, yes, the printed versions of newspapers and books.
"I've been having serious doubts as to why I'm doing it," Magnusson said. "I love computers. At the same time, I think I use computers too much."
But the computer's specter has not been totally shaken. Lundin's girlfriend sent an e-mail on his behalf. Magnusson confessed to watching some YouTube videos on friends' computers. And Tatge had to take a test for a Chinese class on computer or risk academic harm.
'No turning back'
Society's dependence on computers, observed classmate and cameraman Tom Schmidt, has reached a point "where there's no turning back."
Unexpected tasks such as finding books or videos in the library became nearly impossible with the extinction of the card catalog.
In an ironic twist, the in-the-flesh gathering was heavily promoted on the Facebook site itself. (By a classmate who had not pledged computer abstinence, of course.)
Carleton students also hit the pavement promoting the event and "Unplug Your Computer Day," passing out handwritten brochures that offered tips for computer-free survival, at least on a short-term basis: Leave an "away" message on Facebook, write notes by hand, do Web-based homework in advance and get batteries for your CD player.
About 40 students signed pledges to jilt their computers for the day.
In a feverish rush to stay honorable to his purity, Hitchcock said he sent about 40 e-mails the night before, submitted 10 items to a Web site he regularly contributes to and sent a notice to his Ultimate Frisbee teammates that he'd be late for practice.
"I don't know if I'll be able to succeed," he said, noting that he subscribes to about 70 Web sites.
Senior Becky Dernbach was less flustered.
"I turned my computer off at 11:59 last night," she said the day of the gathering. "I read a book. I feel really good about it."
Lundin, Magnusson and Tatge said that eventually they forgot about some of the features they came to depend on daily. Face-to-face human contact hasn't really increased or decreased, but they don't know the latest Internet-only news and haven't seen the latest video gone viral on YouTube.
Tatge expects to slowly ease himself back into computer usage while Magnusson plans to hold out until the end of the academic term. Both said they plan to continue some of their hard-learned computer-free habits.
Lundin jumped back into the plugged-in life the weekend before the gathering, logging in and going hard for about seven hours.
"It was overwhelming," he said.