Ethnography

Operation BLACKOUT

INTRODUCTION:
The first several years of my life I was not “connected.” I did not have a cellphone in my pocket or a computer on my desk. Making plans with friends was not difficult; just different. No text messages, just calls through a landline. Back then, when the phone rang, there were limitless possibilities of who could be calling. Staying on the phone ran the risk of giving other potential callers a busy signal. Back then, I memorized phone numbers and left voicemails on answering machines. But what really makes my nostalgic is remembering that I used to call families, not individuals. “Nantz residence, this is Lynn.” “Hello, this is the Sorensen household, David speaking.” I have never thought about it before, but the cellphone did not just make phone calls mobile, it made them personal. I now know who is calling before I pick up the phone, and give no greeting beyond a simple “hello” or “what's up?”

My experiment involved much more than my cell phone. It involved my television. It involved my light bulbs. It involved every electrical outlet in my room. What I wanted was BLACKOUT.

Operation BLACKOUT is simple on paper; unplug everything in my room, change the settings on my phone, and hand my car key to my roommate. I live in a country where every road is accompanied by a powerline, every chain store is a Wi-Fi hotspot, and every house is on the electrical grid. All I wanted was to step outside it for a short time. I was told this was extreme by classmates and insane by friends, but the backlash over this simple experiment only served to increase my desire to do it.

If we are indeed addicted and dependent on technology, below is the account of my withdrawal symptoms from electricity.

CELLPHONE

Features:

  • Personalized ringtones to let me know who is calling
  • Front screen displays caller
  • Text messages sent/received ~25 per week
  • Phone calls ~30 minutes per week

Preparation: I prepared for this experiment by accessing the settings to my phone. I was able to turn off caller display on my front screen, and set all call ringtone to a classic ringing sound (typical of house-phones in the early 90's). Going further, I took the battery out of the back and plugged the phone into the wall, therefore tying me to the phones location. Unfortunately, there was no way to stop receiving text messages, but I was able to turn the New Text Message Indicator sound to silent, so I would not be able to hear of texts coming in.

Experience: All-in-all, the cellphone experiment was a failure. One by one, all the features I had disabled I was forced to re-enable. Unlike the other electrical devices I gave to Operation BLACKOUT, my cellphone was my primary source of direct communication, and being without it was much more than an inconvenience; it was dangerous.

Without any way to know who was calling, my first conversation went like this:
Me: Hello?
Nitesh: Hey, are you home?
Me: Who is this?
Nitesh: [pause] John?
Me: Ya, who is this?
Nitesh: Nitesh, why, what's wrong?

While several of my conversations this week started similar to this one, it is not my experience that is important, but the experience of the caller. While I was unaware of who was calling me, when I talked to Nitesh later he revealed that he was the one who was much more confused. He told me various questions that went through his head during those first couple seconds of dialog:
Have I called the wrong person on my contacts list?
Has my phone glitched and dialed the wrong number?
Has someone other than John picked up his phone?
Is there something wrong with John's phone?
Is there something wrong with John?

When I asked who I was speaking to, my friend called into question his phone, my phone, and even my well-being.

Maybe my well-being should have been called into question. My first time on campus without my phone added a subtle layer of stress to my whole day. I was unable to make dinner plans with friends. I did not know the time outside of the classrooms. And even though when I returned home I found that I had not missed any text messages, I spent the hours before that under the impression that I was, in fact, missing several. Without me, my phone had received one phone call from my parents.

By Tuesday, I had changed the experiment. Knowing that I needed to make a phone call later that day, I replaced the battery and brought my phone with me to campus. Not wanting to give up on the cellphone aspect of the experiment, I decided to keep the phone off until I needed to use it. But having my cellphone in my pocket did little to console me. I still was stressed, and would unintentionally take it out to look at the time, only to discover again and again that it was off. When I turned it on, I had to play catch-up with the various calls and texts that I missed.

Three days out of immediate contact served to worry family and friends, even after I returned their calls. The novelty of being without a cellphone had vanished, and I was left stressed and on the wrong end of several hurt messages. Missing a movie showing was the final straw; I was forced to forgo the experiment before my week was done.

TRANSPORT and TV

Preparation: Preparing to go without a car and television was not difficult. After making sure my Toyota was locked, and asked my roommate to hold onto my car key for a week. Television was even easier; all I had to do was unplug it from the wall.

Experience: My life was not affected by not having a vehicle. I am already well versed with the bus system of Blacksburg as I use my car rarely. While I did not experience any direct effect of being carless, I do not doubt that if the weather had been inclement, or if I had a commuter pass for campus, I would have missed having my car.

I unfortunately cannot say the same about the television. While I watch very little scheduled programming, I do use my TV for my Xbox. Through my Xbox, I watch Netflix almost every day and perhaps play a video game during some free time. Having to forgo my television served as a major inconvenience. While I usually believe that I am constantly busy, being without any way to burn my free-time revealed to me exactly how much free-time I actually have. The first couple of days I would deal with my now-empty time by chatting with friends or napping. By the week’s end, my productivity had skyrocketed. I finished the book I was reading, organized my closet, and doubled the amount of time I spent exercising. This was at first a great benefit, but as I finished various tasks I was running out of options. Had the experiment continued for another week, I would have no idea how to fill the empty time.

BASIC ELECTRICITY

Features:

  • Running Water
  • Heat/Air Conditioning
  • Stove/Oven/Microwave/Toaster
  • Fridge
  • Lights
  • Nightstand Table Clock

Preparation: Most of the electrical components in my room are connected to surge protectors. Preparing them for Operation BLACKOUT was no harder than hitting the on/off switch on the surge protector. While that was easy, other benefits of having electricity were too important to give up. Running water, drinks in the fridge, and heat are essential to my well-being. Being such, I could not include them in the experiment, and instead was left only to wonder how difficult my life would have become without them. I also left the clock in my room on so the alarm could wake me up for class.
This left the lights in my room and the various electrical appliances in my kitchen as my sacrifices to the experiment.

Experience: My time without electricity was perhaps the most interesting part of the experiment. Old habits die hard, I discovered, as I would try and use the electrical devices in my room and kitchen without a second thought. But when these devices failed to turn on, I was hit with the harsh reality that I could not use them. Perhaps most significant, I began to notice sundown. Before, the sun's position in the sky mattered little to me when I was in my room. But without lights, the texts I read were harder to read as the sun set in the west. In the beginning of my week, the absence of light gave me an excuse to stop working. But as the week progressed and my readings piled up, I had to start migrating downstairs where my roommate had lights on. I learned that I could not actually go without lights. I either had to find a loophole in my experiment and use the lights that my roommate had on while working, or give in to the technology and use the lights while in the bathroom. My room stopped being a place where I could live, and started being the dark room where I only slept.
My kitchen appliances were missed. I tend to make my own food most nights, but I was forced to use my campus meal-plan for dinners. This was not such an incredible change, but late night hungers could no longer be satisfied by the microwave. I turned to sandwiches, but I was painfully aware that the meat I put in them was kept fresh by my electric fridge. I learned that electricity is not required for living, instead, just living comfortably.

COMPUTER

Features:

  • Check Email
  • Electronic School Work
  • Surf Web
  • Online Chat
  • Watch Movies/TV
  • Play Games

Preparation: Because the battery no longer works, all I needed to limit the use of my computer was to turn off the surge protector it was plugged in to.

Experience: This part of the experiment was the one I was most anticipating. Unfortunately, it was also a failure. While before the experiment I was confident that I could get all my work done in the school library (where I already get half of my work done), I found out that I needed my computer more than I knew.
Boredom was the first side-effect. This was expected, and just like I had done with my lack of television, I turned to other forms of entertainment. Random web surfing, compulsive Facebook checking, and constant online chatting was replaced by a piece of paper. On it, I would write down everything I needed to remember to do next time I was by a computer. But the simple fact that a computer is not my computer began to be apparent. My online bank account did not recognize the IP address of Newman Library, causing it to ask me additional security questions. Also, I was used to my web browser remembering all my passwords, but on the school's computer, I was forced to guess several before I found the right one. But all-in-all, my workings on the school computer felt unnatural. While I was familiar with the interface, all the programs and hot-keys I was used to were no longer there. And yet, I stuck with the experiment for most of the week. But in my desperation to make a bus home, or to finish working so I could eat, I would leave work undone. By Thursday, I was home and yet still flooded with work. I turned my computer back on to continue my work. But after being off for so long, my return to my computer was not easy. It required updates, seemingly punishing me for not using it. Websites where I was automatically logged on required me to re-enter my information, as I had accessed them from a different location. While I thought being without my computer was difficult, returning to it was not as simplistic as I had previously imagined.

CONCLUSION

Finishing the experiment was a relief. Yes, this project was required, but I participated in Operation BLACKOUT for me. I think of myself as independent, and yet I learned that I am much more than “connected”; I am imprisoned. What I before labeled as “convenient” I now know to be necessary to my lifestyle. But I also learned what wasn't necessary. Website that I visit everyday were not required, they were just pastimes.
The biggest thing I learned is that I am incapable of being truly unconnected. Even when the lights were out in my room, my roommates continued use of electronics benefited me. Operation BLACKOUT was a failure in that I did not live in true black-out conditions, but I success in teaching me the benefits of technology on my life.