March 28, 2011

Assistant Dean of Students Debra Krumholz, a career adviser and work-life balance consultant, has been helping ambitious Amherst students find jobs for six years now, so she’s accustomed to seeing undergraduates with busy academic and personal calendars rush over to her office for a meeting and collapse into a chair, exhausted after a day of classes and meetings.

In recent years, though, she’s noticed something different.

“It feels like all of our students—and adults, for that matter—are living overscheduled, overprogrammed lives and they are completely overwhelmed,” she said. “And it only makes matters worse that they feel they need to be attached to their iPhones and laptops all the time. They can’t get a break from the constant stream of information, communication and work. They need time off from it all—they need to unplug—and I wanted to do something to remind them that they control technology, not that technology controls them.”

And so an idea was born.

On April 8, Krumholz and a committee of interested staff and students are coordinating what they’re calling Amherst Unplugged, a day to raise awareness about the potentially harmful effects of excessive use of technology. The committee is encouraging students that day to voluntarily “disconnect” for 15 minutes, an hour, the afternoon or any part of the day they’re comfortable with and forgo cell phones, computers and other technological devices. That’s right: no Facebook, no Instant Messenger, no Twitter, no texting.

Instead, students can try their hand at meditation, yoga and other activities that Krumholz and her committee have organized. Other highlights include playground games and crafts in and around the Campus Center, an afternoon tea and a hike at the Notch.

The goal, said Krumholz, is to simply get undergraduates away from their various screens and the associated information overload and see how it feels to build some “down time” into the day.   

“We’re trying to remind everyone of the simple pleasures of life that we often lose sight of when we’re spending so much time plugged in,” she said. “We’re not asking them to stop doing schoolwork for 24 hours or anything like that at all. We’re just saying, ‘Hey, if you need to do research for a paper, sign that book you need out of the library and read it outside. Stop by your adviser’s office to talk about that issue you need to discuss instead of sending an e-mail. Or take a half an hour to just take a walk and enjoy the outdoors.’ If we can get a few students unplugging for just a portion of the day, we’ll consider it a success.”

The notion that technology might be taking over the modern consumer’s life is nothing new, of course. A June 6, 2010, New York Times article reported that, in 2008, Americans consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960; the same piece said that scientists at the University of California, San Diego, found that at home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average compared to just five hours in 1960.

And all of this media consumption takes its toll, say the experts. Myriad studies have found regular users of the Internet and technology to be everything from distracted and forgetful to irritable and even depressed.

John de Graaf, Emmy Award-winning producer of Running Out of Time and a frequent commentator on overwork and overconsumption, will speak about these issues to the campus community on March 29 at 7:30 p.m. in Stirn Auditorium. Titled “Time, Technology and Happiness,” the talk is sponsored by the Amherst Unplugged committee.

Krumholz said that lecture is intended to get students thinking about the April 8 event and the idea of giving up their devices. In the days following de Graaf’s talk, she and other members of the committee and student groups will distribute information and publicize the April 8 events to get undergraduates interested in participating.

“Look, we don’t want our students to give up computers or texting or Facebook—I recognize that technology adds to our lives in many positive ways,” said Krumholz, adding that the committee specifically chose to coordinate Amherst Unplugged on a Friday (i.e. the quietest weekday) in order to avoid any kind of disruption of schoolwork. “It’s the balance that we’re concerned with. We’re just asking them to experiment with reducing the amount of time they spend using technology. They could discover that it actually feels like a relief.”