What Do You Do Without A Screen?

No Stone Unturned

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?

I’ve Got Too Much Money Locked Up In My Computer


During middle school, I signed up for BMG music service over and over again, relishing the accumulation of cheapish CDs–12 for the price of one, plus enormous shipping costs–and my collection grew from dozens to hundreds over a few years.  Small black plastic cases gave way to larger wooden storage units.  My ability to make locally renowned mix tapes skyrocketed.  The collection was a source of pride.   I bought plenty of crap, took a chance on bands such as Primus and Ministry (not personal favorites now or then), and used every family member as an alias as to increase my music stash.

CDs in case

I could trade albums with friends.  I could remove the cover art and plaster my bedroom walls.  I could sell used albums to Pitchfork records on Main Street in Concord, NH, so I could buy the latest Pearl Jam album just as it came out.  Heck, I could even utilize outcast CDs as frisbees.

Digital music consumption, for all of its benefits, has eroded a secondary and social market.  

So now I’ve got a couple thousands of dollars locked up in my computer in the form of MP3s, an issue NPR’s Planet Money recently explored in this thought-provoking  piece from reporter Caitlin Kenney.   Have you heard of ReDigi? It’s an online marketplace for pre-owned digital goods such as e-books and MP3s, but the company is, unsurprisingly, embroiled in lawsuits.

If you can do whatever you want with a physical CD or book, ReDigi contends, then you should be able to do the same with digital pieces.  The legal concept is known as first-sale doctrine.  Why shouldn’t I be able to resell MP3s purchased on iTunes for half-price to somebody else? 

Kenney asks,  “Do you really own something if it’s just a bunch of ones and zeroes on your computer? If you take a digital song and you move someplace else, did you actually move it or did you just make a copy and destroy the original?”  

A judge sided with Capitol records in their case against Redigi, stating that you can only sell your MP3s if you do so along with the original device on which the item was downloaded, say an iPod or computer.  

If streaming and wireless technology continues to proliferate and improve, what is the incentive to buy any books, music, or movies?  Personally, I still buy an album or so a month on iTunes, plus scattered single tracks.   But I might soon shift to strictly on-demand music.  I’d rather put my money in a retirement account or towards a vacation than in an inaccessible digital vault.  

As far as books are concerned, I can’t imagine trading my dusty and eclectic bookshelves for digital versions of texts that send me back to a specific time and place, still provide opportunities to trade and borrow, and serve as conversation pieces for guests.  

We continue to consume and purchase more and more digital material, so ownership issues will not become simpler any time soon.  And for those who pat themselves on the back, because they believe they are saving the environment by bypassing petroleum-based plastic CD covers and book pages sourced by deforestation, the issue isn’t so simple.  Here’s some final food for thought, a PBS Mediashift article about the environmental impact of digital versus print media.

Do you still collect CDS, tapes, or Vinyl?  How about e-books?  Have you considered your inability to legally sell digital items you purchase?  What is your take?