Can true solitude be found in a wired world?

Companies, groups say it’s healthy to unplug

 Dan Rollman, CEO of RecordSetter.com, and others from the group Reboot created the Sabbath Manifesto, a call for a day to unplug from the constant use of technology.
Dan Rollman, CEO of RecordSetter.com, and others from the group Reboot created the Sabbath Manifesto, a call for a day to unplug from the constant use of technology.MARY ALTAFFER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHICAGO — When was the last time you were alone and unwired? Truly by yourself. Just you and your thoughts — no cellphone, no tablet, no laptop.

Many of us crave that kind of solitude, though in an increasingly wired world, it’s rare. We check texts and e-mails and update our online status — when we’re lying in bed or sitting at stop lights. We even do so when we’re on the toilet.

We feel obligated, yes. But we’re also fascinated with this connectedness, constantly checking in — an obsession that’s starting to get pushback from a small but growing legion of tech users who feel the need to unplug.


‘‘What might have felt like an obligation at first has become an addiction. It’s almost as if we don’t know how to be alone, or we are afraid of what we’ll find when we are alone with ourselves,’’ says Camille Preston, a technology and communication consultant in Cambridge, Mass.

One could argue that, in this economy, it’s wise to be constantly wired — to stay on top of things, to please the boss. Preston knows people who get up in the middle of the night to see if their boss has sent e-mail. But she and others also see more hints of limit-setting.

‘‘When I think about truly disconnecting, I look to my truly techy friends,’’ says Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor who co-directs the school’s PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. Those friends, she says, take long, unwired vacations and set ‘‘away messages’’ telling people to write back after they return. ‘‘And they stick to it,’’ Davidson says.

An organization called Reboot has started the Sabbath Manifesto, a call to unplug one day a week — or to simply take a day of rest with family and friends. And big corporations, some outside the tech industry, are starting to adopt this type of limit-setting.


Volkswagen shuts off mobile e-mail in Germany 30 minutes after employees’ shifts end and turns it back on 30 minutes before their next shift starts.

Google, Nike, and the Huffington Post, among others, provide space for employees to take naps or meditate. The idea is they will be more productive.

John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist, says there might be something to that. He has spent much of his career tackling the topic of loneliness and isolation.

‘‘Feeling ignored sparks feelings of loneliness,’’ hesays. But getting away — ‘‘that’s the opposite of being lonely.’’ While the cognitive effects are still being studied, he says it’s likely that type of solitude is good for the brain.

Reboot has created The ­Undo List — an e-mail that arrives Friday afternoons ‘‘with ideas for conversation topics, readings, local outings, and creative endeavors to ease the time away from technology and help make the day better.’’

Leah Jones, a 35-year-old Chicagoan turns her cellphone to ‘‘silent’’ mode from 11:30 p.m to 6 a.m. and puts it away when she goes out.

‘‘I’m a better friend when I don’t have my phone in my hand,’’ says Jones, vice president of social and emerging media at Olson public relations.

Social networking ‘‘makes it seem like everybody’s doing something awesome,’’ she says. ‘‘But you can’t always worry about what other people are doing.