Information and Contemplation – Teaching Students How to Unplug

Reflecting on Technology

Do we need to teach college students how to unplug? Is this a good use of their educational time, not to mention tuition money?

David Levy, a professor in the Information School at the University of Washington says “Yes,” according to a recent article in USA Today. In “Prof tackles tech distractions one student at a time,” we learn about Levy’s course entitled “Information and Contemplation”:

A college course that starts with 15 minutes of doing absolutely nothing would seem like stiff competition for Basket Weaving 101 as a credit filler.

And yet for harried students in the throes of the tech age, that silent intro has proven to be the toughest part of professor David Levy’s “Information and Contemplation,” a University of Washington class whose popularity and reputation is growing.

“They start the course rushed and with tight shoulders, but my argument is that it’s precisely for the sake of productivity that we need a greater connection with ourselves and our tech tools,” says Levy, a former Silicon Valley denizen who teaches out of the Information School’s Mary Gates Hall, honoring the mother of tech, godfather Bill.

Notice that, at least in the article, Levy is not seeking to help students have richer and deeper lives. He’s teaching his course “for the sake of productivity.” Yet, Levy isn’t merely interested in getting people to accomplish more. He is motivated by his concern for today’s collegians:

“I feel for this generation; they just seem incredibly busy and stressed,” says Levy, who was a researcher at the fabled Xerox PARC lab in Silicon Valley throughout the ’90s. “It’s that very American view that we all should be working all the time, an intensification of our more-faster-better industrial era.”

Levy’s approach to technology appears to be influenced by a variety of religious traditions. According to USA Today, he takes a “tech Sabbath” every Saturday. He explains, “It’s about a having a deeper conversation and being mindful of limits, about asking yourself, ‘How do I want to live?’” His use of the term “mindful” connects with the Buddhist tradition of practicing mindfulness, which is becoming increasingly popular in the tech world. As the article explains, “Though hardly a new concept — Buddhists have practiced the art of focusing on the moment for millennia — staying on track in the face of calls, e-mails, social media, news alerts and other distractions could be the killer app for a killer life.” I wonder if practitioners of mindfulness would appreciate this description of their discipline: “the killer app for a killer life.”

Prof. Levy’s course and the USA Today article join a chorus of voices calling for intentional unplugging from our continually connected lifestyle. This seems wise, though I worry about an argument for unplugging that emphasizes greater productivity. What about greater wholeness? Greater fruitfulness? Deeper relationships? An enhanced awareness of God’s presence?

Levy’s course appears to help students, not only step back from technology, but also learn to use it more intentionally. We need, not only to unplug, but also to discover how better to work, how better to live, while plugged in.


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