Mixed Media: Lessons In Unplugging


Writing a book, I recently told a friend, is like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean. You never know who might find it, read it and think of it.

It’s been 20 years since I wrote my first book, “The Search for God at Harvard,” and I still occasionally get notes about it from unexpected places. Sometimes I learn more from my correspondents than I ever put in that original bottle.

The most recent note came from a man named Roy Cohen, not the infamous lawyer who died in 1986 (and spelled his last name Cohn), but the Roy Cohen who is a fitness trainer and the proprietor of a small gym in Fallbrook, Calif., just north of San Diego.

He writes: “In an age where I have felt overwhelmed by humanity itself — modernity and all that goes with it — I recently took a 30-day sabbatical from all information media, information technology, and all social media. In short, I lived completely unplugged for 30 days.”

Definitely my kind of guy, I thought. That may be a strange admission for a media columnist, but I have to confess that I approach all information technology with considerable skepticism. Don’t try to find me on Facebook, and I don’t do Twitter.

Roy went on about his technology fast: “In this process, I took to reading again, rather than listening to books on iTunes, as I have done for nearly a decade. Among the first books I chose to read was ‘The Search For God at Harvard.’

“My daughter, a student at De Paul University suggested your book, and assured me it was right up my alley. You see, I earn my keep as a fitness trainer, but all of my non-working time is spent contemplating religion — for all its beauty, all its liability, and all its embarrassment. I love religion — ritual in particular.

“I was raised Jewish — Reform, bar mitzvahed and moved on. Despite this — that my background is Jewish, my family is Jewish, and that I have read countless books on Judaism — I have never truly known what it is like to be Jewish — it has always been an afterthought. I have never even tried. Perhaps that’s because Judaism was thrust upon me as a child rather than cultivated.

“Having read your book, though, for the first time in my life, I can see what it means for someone to be Jewish — to love it enough that it becomes prioritized in such beautiful and creative ways. As I read your book, I marveled with envy at the love affair you have with your faith — complete envy.”

All this was nice to hear, of course, especially because my book, about a year that I spent at Harvard Divinity School, was pilloried by many observant Jews for bending halacha a bit too eagerly. Among other things, I wrote about reporting with a pencil (rather than a pen) on Shabbat and about “tefillin dates,” an activity that suggests both sex and prayer. I wrote back to Roy that it was I, in fact, who envied him. I wished I could take a 30-day media fast, and I could certainly use a gym — and a personal trainer.

I asked Roy for more details of his technology fast and suggested that he try a weekly one, namely Shabbos. He wrote back that “in hindsight” he realizes that his technology fast was “making up for decades of unobserved Sabbaths.”

“With regard to life without technology for 30 days,” he added, “it was peaceful, empowering, and probably formative to some degree — but those transformations might have more to do with what I did during those 30 days than what I did not do: reading, gardening, cleaning — ritual. I have a great passion for ritual, especially when there is a physical component to ritual.”

So what did he learn? I wondered. “If there are lessons learned from a month unplugged,” Roy wrote back, “they are as follows:

* “Television holds little value to me anymore.

* 80+ percent of my e-mail use is unnecessary.

* Books on i-Tunes have no soul.

* Facebook is a fair distraction in situations not well suited to substance; waiting for a late client, waiting room at a doctor’s office, etc.

* Texting holds a great deal of utility in the scope of my life — more so than I had imagined.

* Writing essays (a hobby of mine) is much easier with modern word processing than on legal pads. I am grateful for MS Word.”

In short, technology is not bad. It just has to be used intelligently.

And there is one other value to it, I realize. These days you can throw your note in a bottle into the ocean and do not have to wait for a message to come back to you in a bottle. Just open your e-mail. You will surely find some silliness there, but also some wisdom.

Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. His “Mixed Media” column will run regularly.