"Unplugged"

Excluding childhood and a recent experiment, I can’t remember the last time I completely “unplugged” from the stimulation of electronic devices for more than 24 hours.  The time I do remember being “unplugged” for a significant duration was when I was eight years old. I was living in a small town in rural West Virginia and I recall vowing that I would free myself of watching television. I believed that I didn’t need the empty programming of TV, which included the Saturday morning cartoons that were popular with so many other kids in my demographic.

Although my vow was primarily a discrete way of justifying the fact I didn’t have a TV to watch, I still felt empowered. I had the sense that I had risen above the majority of my generation who were wasting countless hours in front of the glowing box. The truth is, I was being raised without television. This aspect of my childhood was due to my mother’s philosophy on parenting and the fact that she didn’t have enough money to buy a TV set. This upbringing may have defined me at the time, but since then I have become completely attached to electronic devices and stimulation.

Nowadays I am similar to the younger generations living in developed countries who will have no recollection of a time or experience of being unplugged from digital input. Our modern reality is inextricably woven with TV, film, the Internet and mobile devices. We have permanently grown appendages or “extensions” of our human biological machine through the reliance of electronic devices.

Arguably, my dependence on electronic devices is not necessarily for escape and entertainment, but for my livelihood. I rely on computers, mobile devices, digital cameras, audio equipment, software and the Internet as fundamental tools to make a living. These electronic extensions allow the thoughts in my mind to materialize into a consumable product.

Nowadays I spend over eight hours a day in front of my computer. I usually have the radio on and will jump at an email alert, text message, tweet or other electronic stimuli. I’m completely absorbed in the larger electronic field of experience. Recently, when I went 24 hours without touching, viewing or interacting with an electronic device I found my mind bending towards these devices. I longed to touch them, interact with them and stay plugged in.

I realized during this experiment that our present-day condition is a curious conundrum. As we become more connected to the world through digital media and as our human senses expand electronically, we are more detached from our immediate surroundings. This fragmentary characteristic of our existence increases the longer we stay plugged into the matrix of digital communication and interaction. The further we connect through these splintered interactions and experiences, the more we lose bits of ourselves. We leave behind some of our essence by becoming more mechanical. We neglect our ability to focus our will. We lose the awareness of our direct experience of the physical world and sight of our ability to be present in the moment.

Philosophers, artists and thought leaders have written extensively on electronic stimulation and the effects of our dependence on digital media. In Marshall McLuhan’s classic book, “The Medium is The Massage” (1967), he puts forth the theory that the human field of sensory perception, that is our “sensorium” is being “massaged” by this electrical stimulation. In a sense the massage of these devices is electrical nourishment. The comfort of this massage offers us a type of food that inspirits our existence and enlivens our beings. McLuhan substantiates that electronic media and digital experiences are extensions of our human senses, bodies and minds.

McLuhan furthers his idea by stating that, “Electric circuitry confers a mythic dimension on our ordinary individual and group actions.” McLuhan’s use of the word “mythic” is a brilliant choice because it clearly describes the relationship between electronic media and our human biological machine as a fictitious experience. The term mythic also implies an exaggerated or idealized experience, which is exemplified in the sensational programming on television, in the hyper-real scenes in cinematic films, or in the redefining of personality through our on-line avatars and pseudonyms.

In another more recent text by Larry J. Solomon, “The Sounds of Silence,” (1998) Solomon complements McLuhan theories by exploring John Cage and the piece 4’33” that Cage wrote in 1952. Solomon’s essay identifies that Cage was redefining our concept of silence by eliminating the distinction between sound and silence. Solomon quotes Cage by sharing that “The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention.”  In the context of the human “sensorium” reacting to the feed of electronic stimulation, our intention is slowly deteriorating. Perhaps Cage did not imagine that our own experience could be “silenced” and that our lives would become increasingly non-musical.

Cage argued that silence is the absence of our awareness and that it is “not acoustic.” As Solomon points out, Cage’s redefinition of silence established a connection with Eastern philosophy.  Cage explains, “In India they say that music is continuous; it only stops when we turn away and stop paying attention.” In today’s digital era, we are paying less attention to our direct experiences with the physical world and focusing our interactions through the extension of electronic devices. In this sense the music as defined by Eastern thought fades as we continue massaging ourselves with electronic and digital interdependence.

by Ian Evenstar

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