Unplugging practices and experiences in a world of media

Unplug your life

Master's Thesis, 2019

101 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of content

Illustration directory

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical classification
2.1 A lifeworld without offline mode
2.1.1 Of mediatized worlds and being POPC
2.1.2 Acceleration of life and oases of deceleration
2.1.3 The concept of slowness and the commodification of slowness
2.2 Unplugging in the context of research
2.2.1 Throughout the years: Understanding non-use of ICT
2.2.2 The emerging discourse on unplugging and categorizing the terms
2.2.3 Media resistance and public discourses on media resistance
2.3 Research questions

3. Methodological Approach
3.1 Reasoning of method choice and conceptualizing the interview guideline
3.2 Acquisition of participants and sampling
3.3 Operationalization and method of Analysis
3.4 System of categories

4. Results
4.1 Managing constant availability and making the decision to unplug
4.2 The forms of unplugging
4.3 The unplugging experience
4.4 Narratives of unplugging and the actual experiences

5. Discussion

6. Conclusion



Illustration directory

Illustration 1: Process of analysis


With handing in this thesis, an important chapter of my life ends and I want to thank the people who supported me throughout this challenging yet beautiful period of time. First of all, I am grateful for my parents who always believed in me and without whom I would have never been able to write this thesis because they are the best mental supporters, advisors and kind-hearted people. Then, of course, my supervisor who guided me through this thesis with his scientific knowledge and who helped me structure my ideas. And last but not least, my friends who also wrote their thesis at the same time helped me with their advice and always made me feel like I was not the only one struggling from time to time. Thank you.

1. Introduction

„The average American spends more than half of their waking life staring at a screen. The negative psychological, social and cultural impact is real. Things need to change“ (Digital Detox LLC, 2014, n. p.). Recently, more people perceive digital media use as a negative impact for health, well-being and concentration. Thus, going offline for a while, having no Wi-Fi connection or at least not using it and abstaining from any information and communication media has become a trend. There are more and more Apps designed to track the use of the smartphone and intending to help with spending less time on digital devices. Looking back at our society in the 1990s, the beginning years of digitalization, media non-users were regarded quite skeptically because of a potential digital divide. Meanwhile, the use of ICT is even regulated by some employers in the sense that e-mails are not being delivered after work – reasoned with the right to be inaccessible (Abendzeitung München, 2014, n.p.).

In scientific discourse, the non-use of media was long shadowed by the studies on media use and used to be portrayed as the mere opposite of media use (Kaun & Schwarzenegger, 2014). However, media non-use does not clearly differ from media use, rather there are selective disconnections from the online world that are either limited in time or to specific media (Mainwaring, Chang & Anderson, 2004, p. 425). As disconnection is so closely linked to connection, the research on the facets of non-use which is becoming even more relevant in society can bring valuable findings about the social functions and the social milieu of the technology itself (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1996–1997). In recent years, especially literature in english has referred to the phenomenon subsumed under keywords like disconnection, digital detox or technology push-back. Within this context, researchers have examined the reasons for leaving social media at the example of Facebook (Baumer et al., 2013), analyzed the political dimensions of facebook non-uses (Portwood-Stacer, 2012) or compared users and non-users (Hargittai, 2008). Even though these are only a few examples of many studies on the broad field of unplugging, they still highlight what current research has mainly focused on: Examining abstinence from specific media platforms or from technology itself. We now know quite a lot about quitting media technology for a while and we have many terms to label the media abstinence ranging from digital detox to unplugging. However, none of these studies have looked at the phenomenon from a structural perspective: How do these people unplug? Do they mention a detox camp where they have professional help and the support of others doing the same or do they keep themselves motivated through an app? Structuring the forms of unplugging into categories so they can be grasped more clearly, might help connect the dots of knowledge we have from current research.

These implications on research gaps have brought up the overall research question of the present study: What are the forms of unplugging and how are they related to the reasons and processes of meaning-making surrounding the action of unplugging? In pursuance of this aim, I will regard the unplugging practices and how people cope with abstaining from media. In order to see how unplugging affects people‘s everyday lives, this study also looks at how people change their media use afterwards and how they generally manage availability after returning back into their mediatized surroundings. In order to examine this phenomenon, I will start with discussing literature about mediatization, looking at our society from a perspective without offline-modus. Beyond that, I will discuss how perceived acceleration enforces the development of oases of deceleration and their impact on the movement of unplugging. The concept of slowness and thus, the commodification of slowness will then give insight how narratives of slower media consumption have gained relevance. Theoretical classification will close with a broad overview on technology refusal and media-non use in order to help us understand how normal media use has become and what drives non-users.

These individual perceptions will be collected and analyzed throughout interviews with participants who have unplugged in the past. Adding to their individual perceptions, I will enrich the empirical work with a content analysis of selected unplugging Apps and Websites. Furthermore, a description of the methodological approach will follow, as well as presenting and interpreting the results. Finally, the results will be discussed in the context of previous research and the preceding literature review.

2. Theoretical classification

The following chapter aims at giving an overview on the theoretical groundwork relevant for this present study. A critical consideration of scientific approaches and earlier empirical results enables us as researchers to see the flaws of current research while at the same time learning a lot about the contexts of our field through results from previous studies. Firstly, I will take a closer look at the circumstances in mediatized worlds, because we know that unplugging usually signals “an emergent unease with the ubiquitous presence of connective media devices within our everyday lives and environments“ (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1997). Therefore, the important contexts around unplugging are mediatization and concepts that are intertwined with it like acceleration and concepts of going slow (2.1). Beyond that, the exploration of previous studies on media non-use in the social media age and even before will reveal more information about unplugging and the reasons behind it (2.2). Building on the critical discussion of previous research on the field, I will formulate my research questions for this current study (2.3).

2.1 A lifeworld without offline mode

According to Hepp and Hasebrink (2018), unplugging can be perceived as a way of coping with being permanently online and being at reach all the time (2018, p. 18). I want to take this perspective into my further considerations because it allows us to see unplugging as a process. A process that usually never had the intention to skip out of the online-world completely, rather it is about managing all the new possibilities and connectivity the online world has to offer. In order to understand this process more clearly, we need to regard the starting point and the breeding ground for the decision to unplug. And this is for instance a lifeworld without offline mode, where people increasingly feel the need to slow down and to stop this perceived acceleration of life. Therefore, the following sub-chapters will help us understand the contexts of unplugging. I thereby consider the (temporary) non-use of media as “a discursive move that entails more than simply not using something – it‘s a kind of conscious disavowal“ (Portwood- Stacer, 2012, p. 1042). Consequently, people who are just not using some media out of unconscious reasons or because of lacking media literacy will not be considered here. The decision to unplug needs to be made consciously with intention.

2.1.1 Of mediatized worlds and being POPC

Throughout the last decades, media – especially digital media – have increasingly become more important in our everyday lives. We use media to interact with others, we search for information with the help of the internet and we even carry digital devices with us all the time. Therefore, the potential to have an interaction through digital media is always present. In order to grasp these shifts in how we live with more and more connective media, the concept of mediatization has been at the core of scientific discourse. First of all, mediatization is a sensitizing concept that “merely suggests directions along which to look“ (Blumer, 1954, p. 7). At this general level, mediatization makes us sensitive to the role of media change within transformations of society and culture (Hepp & Krotz, 2014, p. 5). And more specifically, we can see a quantitative increase in the spread of communicative media technologies that can be used in the everyday life. We are living in “dense networks of mediated communication“ (Krotz, 2007, p. 259) which manifests in people using media constantly and without questioning it. However, the concept of mediatization points not only to media change, it rather emphasizes how these technologies are only potentials until human beings make sense and use of them by integrating the new media technology into their daily life (Krotz, 2012, p. 30–33). This is why the concept of mediatized worlds also deserves some consideration here. Whereas mediatization is a long-term meta-process in society (Krotz, 2007) which cannot be grasped empirically, mediatized worlds are “the everyday concretization of media cultures and media societies“ (Hepp & Krotz, 2014, p. 8). They are the everyday situations where people use media and make sense of the technology in different kind of contexts, with their own motivations and interests. If we look at mediatization on this micro level, from the perspective of the everyday life concretizations, we can see how changes in media shape the communicative construction of reality in schools, friendships, private and work life or any other dimension of our society (Hepp & Krotz, 2014, p. 8–9).

With respect to the preceding arguments, we need to ask ourselves how our mediatized worlds have changed in order to evoke behaviors of media refusal and the wish to unplug? Coming from analog media, we have witnessed the rise of digitalization and datafication throughout the last years. Hepp and Hasebrink (2018) even refer to these changes as a new era of media environment that is deeply mediatized. More and more media are based on software and algorithms and our lifeworlds are characterized by increasing connectivity and a rising omnipresence of media in the everyday life (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018, p. 19–20). Increasing connectivity also means that the media itself can be seen as digital technologies connected with each other through the internet. And therefore, the omnipresence of media is evoked by the “possibility to connect permanently and everywhere“ (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018, p. 19). Consequently, even situations which previously weren‘t influenced by media are now happening in an environment where media are part of. For example, face-to-face situations like having lunch with friends or colleagues have become a mediatized situation through the fact that smartphones are present on the table, inheriting the potential to influence the conversation through notifications popping up or calls coming in. We are living in a society where it has become possible to be always online in the ‚evertime‘ of “online constant online connectivity“ (Morrison & Gomez, 2014). By calling it the evertime, Morrison and Gomez (2014) refer to the underlying expectations that everyone has to be available all the time, have their smartphone on hand and be connected to the online world anytime. According to the authors, these expectations can be implicit or explicit, so people might not even be aware of them. Compared with the possibility to be available and online all the time (being POPC), the expectations of the evertime might be a factor of stress for people which is going to be part of the examination of this study.

Recent studies have analyzed this phenomenon under the umbrella of being p ermanently online and permanently connected, which is also referred to as being POPC (Vorderer, Hefner, Reinecke & Klimmt, 2018). PO symbolizes the fact that we are often having face- to-face interactions with others while “additionally and simultaneously retrieving information from the Internet“ (Vorderer et al., 2018, p. 3). PC refers to being in constant connection with other people through online communication technology. In fact, being POPC means that individuals increasingly have to divide their focus of attention between the physically present situation and the online world events that are constantly happening at the same time (Vorderer et al., 2018, p. 3–5). However, these two dimensions of being POPC can also occur separately, for example, an individual might constantly think about having to answer an e-mail while actually being on holiday with no access to the Internet (Vorderer, Krömer & Schneider, 2016, p. 695). Now, we would be quite close-minded to think that only computer freaks in Silicon Valley are POPC. It rather seems that, nowadays, being permanently online and connected has become the “new normal“ (Vorderer et al., 2018, p. 4). Whereas a few years ago, being online actually required making an effort to go online and to connect the device to the Internet, it is now the default mode to be connected. In fact, in our deeply mediatized society it takes an effort to go offline and to unplug from media use and communication technology. It even requires planned behavior and intention to arrange a setting where one can unplug from a mediatized lifeworld where POPC is the new normal (Klimmt, Hefner, Reinecke, Rieger & Vorderer, 2018, p. 18). To resume the preceding assumptions about our mediatized worlds, we know that people use more digital and connective devices than ever and that using them has become self-evident in the sense that being available all the time is not something we need to think about. Being available all the time and communicating with each other without limitations of time and space, has lead to a shift in the expectations and the mindset of the new normal.

Klimmt et al. (2018) postulate a kind of POPC mindset that occurs simultaneously with POPC behavior. It occurs when people feel exceptionally close to their digital communication devices (especially their smartphone) and the way it gives them permanent access to the online world (Vorderer et al., 2018, p. 3). According to Klimmt et al. (2018), we can divide the POPC mindset along three dimensions which are salience, reactibility and monitoring. Salience means that individuals will always be partly involved in the online world, maybe only cognitively in the sense that they are thinking about what is going on in their online environment (Klimmt et al., 2018, p. 20). Has someone posted on my Facebook wall? Did I get a message on Instagram? What are my friends writing in our WhatsApp group? We have already seen how this can lead to pressure like the fear of missing out (Thomas, Azmitia & Whittaker, 2016, p. 544). Furthermore, a POPC mindset includes a certain amount of reactibility which means individuals are willing and prepared to “respond to incoming and/or automatic smartphone activities“ (Klimmt et al., 2018, p. 21). Through creating habits of reactibility, users then tend to answer immediately after recognizing an incoming message or notification. This process often forgoes automatically, unconsciously, because it is embedded in media using routines. As a consequence of salience and reactibility, users are cognitively involved in the online world events. Additionally and as part of this kind of engagement, a POPC mindset also includes monitoring. With monitoring, Klimmt et al. (2018), emphasize how users try to stay up-to-date with their online environment permanently. It actually seems as a natural result, as thinking about what is happening online will eventually lead to checking the smartphone for new inquiries (Klimmt et al., 2018, p. 21–23). To put it in a nutshell, the POPC mindset makes users constantly think about and engage in the online world. POPC is like a transparent layer to reality that adds “the permanent connectedness to the perception and processing of day-to-day reality“ (Klimmt et al., 2018, p. 22). People who themselves are highly involved in the online world and who we would refer to be POPC, also expect others to be available all the time and to answer messages within a rather short period of time. These are similar to the expectations that Morrison and Gomez (2014) already pointed out in their assumptions about the evertime of online connectivity. In fact, research on media use in mediatized worlds has shown that people increasingly have a social fear of not having answered an online inquiry (Burchell, 2015, p. 45).

Having discussed recent concretizations of mediatization in the form of POPC behavior, we can see that the use of modern technology is ambivalent. On the one hand, it provides the means to communicate faster and at any given time and place, but it also increases pressure and expectations concerning availability at every possible time and place (Mazmanian, Orlikowski & Yates, 2013, p. 1341–1351). According to Hartmut Rosa (2017), it is especially the acceleration of processes through modern technology that tends to “explode the horizons of possibilities and expectations“ (2017, p. 40). Hence, the POPC mindset actually reflects the fact that individuals are using communication technology that is able to almost instantly connect, receive, process and distribute information. This acceleration of interaction processes can feel quite overwhelming (Burchell, 2015, p. 45) and people increasingly try to regain control over it through unplugging (Thomas, Azmitia & Whittaker, 2016, p. 547). So far, we can locate unplugging as a decision at the core of a change process that includes a mixture of increasing media use (being POPC), rising expectations on availability (having a POPC mindset) and a general acceleration of technology (the opportunity to live POPC). In order to examine the facets of unplugging as a way of slowing down and managing the increase of expectations, we will be taking a closer look at the narratives of acceleration of life and the conceptions of deceleration.

2.1.2 Acceleration of life and oases of deceleration

Within everyday communication, people often refer to their perceptions of the speed of life and the narrative of an accelerated life is frequently used. In order to examine how and if acceleration is part of the decision to unplug, I am going to regard scientific perceptions of speed and acceleration in the context of the everyday life: “To make sense of everyday life in the twenty-first century, we must begin by interrogating the social dynamics of speed“ (Wajcman & Dodd, 2017, p. 2). From a sociological view, speed is highly relative. Depending on the social frame, something can be fast in one context and slow in another. Here, I want to use the example by Harvey Molotch (2017) who explained the speed phenomenon very picturesque: “What is fast by boat is slow by plane“ (Molotch, 2017, p. 117). So, depending on the context, one can perceive processes as slow or fast, even though we are talking about the same period of time. Within a society, we share a collective rhythm of time that constitutes itself through humans engaging with the world in vaguely the same contexts (Wajcman & Dodd, 2017, p. 2). People in Western countries, for example, share similar time rhythms and perceptions of what is fast and what is slow. We perceive websites as slow when they take longer than one minute to load, we think not answering an e-mail within more than two business days is slow and answering immediately is fast. In a different setting, where internet connection has not yet become ‚the new normal‘, answering within four business days might be fast and websites loading for five minutes are nothing unusual. We can see how people judge the pace of time depending on their societal frames and conditions. Now, as we are living in mediatized worlds, technology is a central part of creating these collective rhythms of time. According to Wajcman and Dodd (2017), technology is often underestimated within the phenomenon of perceived acceleration in contemporary times. They postulate that there is a correlation between acceleration and modern technology (Wajcman & Dodd, 2017, p. 2) and advocate the idea that “digitalization has spawned a new temporality“ (Wajcman, 2015, p. 14). Subsumed under the labels of networked time or timeless time, we can find numerous accounts for the relation between mediatization and increasing stress, acceleration and hurriedness – which in turn is supposed to evoke the wish to slow down and unplug.

Hartmut Rosa (2013) examined the phenomenon of perceived acceleration for many years and proposed three dimensions of acceleration in order to outline the push and pull factors that constitute this phenomenon: technological acceleration, acceleration of social change and acceleration of the pace of life. With technological acceleration, our transportation, communication and production processes have become faster. Therefore, processes are less time consuming and take up less time in the everyday life. For example, communication through telephone calls or even text messages mean that people do not have to personally meet for every interaction and therefore, have more time for other things. The second dimension Rosa (2013) proposes is the acceleration of social change which shows in the fact that values, norms, attitudes and lifestyles change at an increasing pace. Even though societies always evolved through changing values and norms, the incredible fast speed of social change makes people unsure of their social frames. People loose orientation because their set of references consisting of groups, classes and norms are changing constantly. The third dimension is the acceleration of the pace of life and within these realms, people increasingly feel short of time and feel that they are running out of time. Time is perceived as a resource that is becoming rare and the amount of experiences and actions taking place within one period of time have increased (Rosa, 2013, p. 18–29). Societies showing indications of all three categories of acceleration can be labelled as an acceleration society (Rosa, 2013, p. 29). So, within an acceleration society, we can detect a paradox because of the co-existence of technological acceleration and perceived acceleration of the pace of life: People are living with time-saving technologies and at the same time, they feel more stressed and more hurried than ever (Robinson, 2012, p. 1101–1102).

Judy Wajcman (2015) refers to it as the time-pressure paradox while she examines the role of technology in shaping people‘s experiences of time. According to Wajcman, speed and efficiency are not “produced by technologies alone but are related to social norms that evolve as devices are integrated into daily life“ (2015, p. 31). This argumentation is in line with my earlier discussion of mediatization and technology as a mere potential that people make sense of in the everyday life. Nevertheless, people do not consciously want to stress themselves out, rather technology has exceeded the opportunities to do things in less time and therefore, converted “all the hypothetical possibilities into real options“ (Rosa, 2017, p. 28). Our to-do lists consist of multiple claims that are actually legitimate claims, but they exceed the time we have on hand in the everyday life (Rosa, 2017, p. 27–28). Following Rosa (2017), this results in the disappearance of leisure time and time where we have absolutely no requirements to fit. In loose reference to Hartmut Rosa (2017) I want to outline this with an example of an imaginary couple living in a rural area with no access to internet or any telephone network at home. Even though the couple might use digital media to connect with colleagues at work and throughout working hours, once they are home, no work-related claims can be made, because they cannot answer their phone or their e-mail messages. And no access means no expectations. This couple would experience something we rarely can remember: the work day is over and they have leisure time with no expectations, requirements or claims that can be made. In a way, the couple in my example are living part-time unplugging and might not even be conscious of this fact. But as I already outlined throughout the previous chapter, the reality of people often is different from that: Most people live in constant connectivity even after the work day has actually ended. Therefore, the claims that can be made are increasing and endlessly extending the to-do lists of people. It is then the reason for stress and hurriedness when people try to live up to these expectations by using even more accelerated technology in order to compensate their shortage of time (Rosa, 2017, p. 40).

With the disappearance of leisure time, let us also consider the meaning of work in times of acceleration and constant connectivity. Wajcman (2015) has done in-depth research on the field and her results show that time scarcity also comes from shifting tasks in work lives. More couples are living as a dual-job household which means that domestic work needs to be done additionally to a full working day – whereas earlier women often inherited the domestic job as a main task (Wajcman, 2015, p. 64–71). This might also contribute to the feeling of never-ending to-do lists and not having enough time for other activities. Technological acceleration has banalized work tasks which used to be a profession, like doing the laundry, cooking dinner or cleaning the house. These tasks used to take up a lot of time and now they are partly automated with washing machines and cleaning tools that are faster and more efficiently than ever. Nevertheless, it still requires work and time to do these things. Or as Jennifer Rauch (2018) has put it: “People used to get paid to do these things; now we do them ourselves for free“ (Rauch, 2018, p. 126). In general, work life is an important indicator of how our norms and expectations are changing towards a direction where one is expected to work, move and think faster in conjunction with the new technology. A study by Mazmanian, Orlikowski and Yates (2013) gives interesting insight into these processes as they surveyed how knowledge professionals use mobile devices and how they go about their day with media. Mazmanian et al. (2013) found that even though mobile devices offer flexibility and control about when and where to receive e-mails, the expectations concerning availability and involvement in work tasks were expanding (Mazmanian, Orlikowski & Yates, 2013, p. 1341–1351). These unconsciously processed pressures concerning availability also appear in private online communication and can result in digital stress or technostress (Reinecke et al., 2016; Weinstein & Selman, 2016). Consequently, it seems that the acceleration of technology and the increase in expectations also influence the work load people have in their everyday lives.

With an increasing amount of people being POPC, the concern of having some kind of information overload arising from private e-mails or social media messages is quite serious. In fact, Reinecke et al. (2016) found correlations between the pressure of Internet multitasking and perceived stress which can lead to anxiety or even burnout. According to Reinecke et al. (2016), perceived social pressure and fear of missing out on information or interactions through social media were the main sources for digital stress (2016, p. 14). Therefore, the acceleration of life that is increasing expectations and lengthening to-do lists has actual, negative effects on personal health. In a further examination of digital stressors, Weinstein and Selman (2016) found that people feel smothered by digital media use and speak of pressure to comply with the constant demands of availability (2016, p. 401–402). Consequently, more and more people perceive digital communication opportunities as quite overwhelming and try to regain control over it (Burchell, 2015, p.45). The ways in which people try to manage this information and expectation overload are diverse, but the most important one for this study is definitely intentional deceleration in the form of unplugging.

Deceleration as a response to perceived acceleration is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the last decades, nearly every major technological invention affecting the velocity of machines and processes was accompanied by counter-movements of slowing down (Wajcman, 2015, p. 174). The rise of the railway, for example, came with major concerns about whether it might be unhealthy for people‘s bodies to move this fast. In a similar way, unplugging can be seen as the intentional effort to decelerate the pace of a mediatized life. Intentional deceleration on the individual level are often limited in time and have the goal of maintaining the functionality of the acceleration systems (Rosa, 2013, p. 50). Referring to them as oases of intentional deceleration (Rosa, 2013, p. 48) or even “oases of de-mediatization“ (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018), emphasizes how these aims to unplug cannot be seen as a detachment of our acceleration society or mediatized life worlds in general. Rather, they are the attempt to deal with the new situation of POPC and show that deep mediatization also includes “space of self-reflection and controlled escape in order to remain manageable for us as human beings“ (Hepp & Hasebrink, 2018, p. 18). Actually, these spaces of self-reflection are like the pauses that are recommended in literature on productivity to enhance creativity or innovation. A mindful approach in order to even increase output per time or to return to the accelerated systems even more successfully (Rosa, 2013, p. 50–51). Throughout recent years, we can observe a whole movement developing around approaches of mindfulness, slowing down and deceleration. Managers applying for yoga courses, silicon valley people doing digital detox or young people living a minimalistic lifestyle – it seems slowing down the pace of life has become a whole movement, mostly subsumed under the labels of slowness. As a response to that, slowness has also evoked completely new fields of business models that are mainly based on the commodification of slowness. In the following chapter, I will discuss unplugging as an oasis of deceleration in the context of the overall concept of slowness.

2.1.3 The concept of slowness and the commodification of slowness

Slowness is a concept resembling the desire to gain “life-enhancing quality“ (Wajcman, 2015, p. 174) and is commonly perceived as the response to our accelerated way of living (Wajcman, 2015; Rauch, 2018; Parkins & Craig, 2008). Concretizing in movements like Slow Food, Slow Living and Slow Media, the concept only gains quality in a surrounding where people have the voluntary choice to slow down, rather than it being the only option they have (Wajcman, 2015, p. 174). Clearly, the older generations probably would have been irritated if someone told them a few decades ago that people would someday appreciate slow agriculture. This is for two reasons: Firstly, people did not have the choice other than to grow food slowly. And secondly, it was normal for that reason and no fancy concept was needed to enhance the benefits of Slow Food. Therefore, slowness is only an attractive way of life if it is actually an alternative to the contemporary way of living. It is often a contrast to the popular value system of contemporary times (Parkins & Craig, 2008, p. 12) which nowadays include being POPC and living a presumably accelerated life or something that we consider as accelerated. At the same time, living slow is not so much about wishing oneself back into analogue times or being nostalgic about the good old days (Parkins & Craig, 2008, p. 14–15), rather it resembles a conscious approach to living and consuming; be it food, media or a mindful perspective in general. Slow Food as the opposite of Fast Food is the attempt to emphasize enjoyment, pleasure and indulgence with something that people considered as normal in their everyday lives. Nowadays, media use and being connected has also become as normal as food in Western societies: there is a lot of it and people do not have to starve – neither for food nor for media use.

Slowness in the context of media use is shifting the “usage toward slower mediated activities, often by temporarily or permanently reducing one‘s time spent with digital networks and devices“ (Rauch, 2011, p. 1). This can be in the case of monotasking instead of multitasking the Internet activities or in the sense that people check e-mails less often and turn their notifications off. The narratives of using media in moderate ways are full of promises on a more fruitful experience of media and life in general. In the past, we have already seen these in the case of Slow Food movements where food is being viewed “from a richer ecological and ethical perspective, instead of a reductive industrial one focusing on speed, cost and efficiency“ (Rauch, 2018, p. 14). Therefore, the richness in using media slowly is not only about using it less. It is about using media with the aim to gain more quality during media consumption, but also – this goes especially for a mediatized lifeworld – more quality of life in general. Here, the perceived quality of life is closely connected to time. Because “at the individual level, it may be true that everyone is time starved“ (Sharma, 2014, p. 110). So, even though we do not starve for food or for media use anymore, we are starving time which is tying the knot between perceived acceleration and increasing slowness movements. Slowing down is the attempt to change the contemporary time rhythms in order to have more time in the everyday life. Being mindful or slow also means distancing from specific areas of life that are considered as too fast (Parkins & Craig, 2008, p. 17–18). With phenomena like digital stress and information overload on the rise, people seem to increasingly feel like media use is an area of their life that they consider as too fast and they decide to unplug in order to slow down.

Slow Media as a movement is rather new in comparison to Slow Food and it has especially become popular since the publishing of a Slow Media Manifesto by David, Blumtritt and Kohler (2010) on their blog slow-media.net. The authors are media researchers who postulate a Slow Media movement as the answer to our current landscape of technology that mainly promotes easy and fast content production. Within the manifesto, the authors declare Slow Media as a means for social, cultural and even political uses. On the individual level, Slow Media enhance the proactivity of users, support monotasking rather than multitasking and “respect their users“ (David, Blumtritt & Kohler, 2010, n. p.). Enhancing proactivity, Slow Media are used by conscious consumers who do not act passively but who want to choose their media use actively and the content they consume. In line with that, Slow Media “cannot be consumed casually, but provoke the full concentration of their users“ (David, Blumtritt & Kohler, 2010, n. p.). Whereas multitasking is often a consequence of a highly mediatized environment and people have to manage multiple media inquiries at the same time, Slow Media call for monotasking and getting back into conscious consuming. Therefore, quality is an essential part of Slow Media “both in production and in reception of media content“ (David, Blumtritt & Kohler, 2010, n. p.). According to the authors, that is what makes Slow Media timeless and hence, sustainable. The parallels between Slow Food and Slow Media become very evident here:

Sustainability relates to the raw materials, processes and working conditions, which are the basis for media production. Exploitation and low-wage sectors as well as the unconditional commercialization of user data will not result in sustainable media. At the same time, the term refers to the sustainable consumption of Slow Media. (David, Blumtritt & Kohler, 2010, n. p.)

This is, in fact, the first point listed in the Slow Media manifesto and it might be the most important one for the overall understanding of the concept. Slow Media are not so much only about slowing down, they are about consuming consciously, producing content that is not a fast-waste-product but rather a sustainable contribution to our content landscape. Enjoyment, pleasure and quality seem to be essential for Slow Media and its prosumers which makes for a contrast to common media use in a mediatized life world. Our new normal means fast consumption, often unconsciously processed content and an overload of information that we first need to filter in order to fit our own needs and desires (David, Blumtritt & Kohler, 2010, n.p.). Following the postulations in the manifesto, Slow Media is both about the constitution of the content and the technology itself and about the way of consuming media.

On a more general note, media consumption in the light of a slowness approach can either be that people reduce their media use permanently or temporarily. The reasons are quite diverse as some only seem to seek time in order to do more offline-activities whereas others perceive unplugging as a “way of escaping the negative effects of digital media“ (Rauch, 2018, p. 24). In this context, a fast connection, fast replies and accelerated technology in general is portrayed as the issue of our contemporary times. Slowness, on the other hand, is seen as the better choice. However, this does not mean that the concept of slowness calls for everything to be slow at the same time. Rather Slow Media “appreciates variable speed and the joy of alternating between them“ (Rauch, 2018, p.24). Rauch (2018, p. 24) also refers to Slow Media as a metaphor of yin and yang, which means that people can enjoy fast media better if they use it slowly from time to time. Slowing down media use in order to balance one‘s own mediated life world. This is yet again in line with what Hepp and Hasebrink (2018) referred to as ‚oases of de- mediatization‘. The overall goal is not to end media use completely, but to handle it better and maybe also to find joy in it once again after it has become so normal to us.

Besides all the promising narratives of slowness in media use, living slowly increasingly seems to be a choice “reserved only for those who have time to make time“ (Sharma, 2014, p. 128). Taking the time to read the newspaper on the couch instead of reading it roughly on the smartphone while sitting on the train to go to work has become a luxury. Consciously consuming, reading carefully, choosing not to use digital media and instead turning to analogue media takes an effort and it also takes means to do so. In my previous chapter, I have outlined how people feel rushed and how time has become a precious resource for most people in mediatized, modern societies. If the concept of Slow Media calls for taking time to carefully engage in media content consumption and production, these efforts can only be made by people who can afford to make time and shift their tasks onto someone else. Here, I want to refer to Sharma who also stated that we need to examine to which extent a slow lifestyle choice “may simply displace speed onto the temporalities of less privilege populations“ (Sharma, 2014, p. 128). Some people might have the power and the monetary means to choose slowness instead of hurriedness, which is the same with Slow Food. Whereas some worry about having food at all, others can afford to think about how they want their food to be produced and processed. These social inequalities make slowness a concept that is desirable but not achievable for many people. But we know that this constellation makes for a perfect baseline for marketing reasons, portraying slowness as “a consumer choice“ (Sharma, 2014, p. 110).

We have seen the commodification of slowness already throughout the Slow Food movement, where initially it was about growing food slowly and consuming it more consciously, now a lot of ‚normal‘ restaurants label themselves as Slow Food restaurants only because they integrate some organic food in their meals. In the case of media, the commodification of slowness is especially visible in the countless unplugging Apps, digital detox camps or even Apple integrating options for offline time into their operating system. One example I want to outline here is a digital detox camp in Germany run as a business that was founded by an agency for sustainable communication. They are providing seminars, workshops and talks on the topic of Unplugging as well as organizing digital detox camps. Throughout the camps, people are learning how to change their digital patterns of use in order to minimize problems resulting from the constant pressure to be available and to counteract digital stress (The Digital Detox, 2018, n. p.). The organization offers different camp-modules ranging from only a Weekend-Camp, to a Power Camp, which is more intense or even a Business Camp that is especially designed for the busy working people.

On the Camp, any digital devices are prohibited and the emptiness evoked by the fact of not being able to scroll through timelines is filled with activities commonly considered as ‚healthy‘. Many fitness activities are planned or even cooking classed where healthy foods like smoothies or powerfoods are integrated into the day. The Camp is advertising with slogans telling people to learn how addicted they really are to their smartphone as well as to no longer be a slave to their smartphone (The Digital Detox, 2018, n. p.). What sounds like a wellness retreat and the beginning of a new chapter to a healthier life, is actually quite an expensive two days trip in the woods. Another good example of how slowness is being commodified are Apps designed to help people with Unplugging. Quite a popular german example is the App Offtime, that was founded by a young Start Up in Berlin. According to the developers, their App is helping people to focus on the really important things in life and to let go of their smartphone addiction and the stress coming from the multiple online inquiries. Users can choose to block specific Apps, notifications or calls for a period of time and can make multiple adjustments in order to personalize their unplugging. Beyond that, the App gives users the opportunity to invite others to a shared time of unplugging (Offtime, 2018, n. p.).

With the increasing amount of digital detox camps, unplugging Apps or other ways of commodifying Slow Media behavior, we can see that there must be a request for such matters and marketing takes advantage of these desires. In order to further discuss the reasons for unplugging as a means of slowness, I want to raise some questions that this whole chapter has brought up: How do people make the connection between their mediatized lifeworlds, acceleration and the wish to slow down? We have seen that, 1. We are living in mediatized lifeworlds, 2. We feel increasingly accelerated, hastened, rushed, out of time and stressed out, 3. We blame it on the overload of information and requests coming in through media devices, 4. Slowness has become an overall attractive concept in modern times, 5. How are the first four points connected and how do people make meaning of unplugging? These questions will be guiding my further discussion of media non-use in our contemporary times.

2.2 Unplugging in the context of research

So far, we know that unplugging means choosing not to use media – regardless of how long or which media technology is refused. Beyond that it is situated within contexts of mediatization, acceleration and movements of slowing down. However, non-use of media is not absolute or always the same, it rather is situate, specific to a medium, a time, a place or a reason for the abstinence (Hesselberth, 2017, Kuntsman & Miyake, 2015). Recent studies found that the reasons for unplugging are quite diverse: Recent research has found that people unplug because of media refusal, technology pushback, health reasons or as part of political activism. Throughout the following chapter, I will discuss the different forms of unplugging, starting with the reasons why people tend to refuse media use in general or pushback on technology. Afterwards, I will regard the reasons and contexts of unplugging in our mediatized lifeworlds. Previous studies and papers on unplugging have shown that many different terms are used when referring to media non-use. In order to structure the results of previous studies, a categorization of terms used for unplugging will follow.

2.2.1 Throughout the years: Understanding non-use of ICT

For this current study, previous perceptions of unplugging and media non-use in general are essential in order to understand two things: Firstly, we need to analyze how media non-use practices developed throughout the last decades as it will also help with understanding current movements of unplugging. And secondly, these developments are documented by researchers who themselves have a certain perception of media non-use that is mainly influenced by the way people regarded (digital) media at this time. Therefore, I will not only regard the main research body on media non- use, but also the overall perceptions which influenced how research was done at the time in order to get some important insight into how unplugging evolved as a social practice.

The scientific discourse on media non-use and technology pushback had its first peak in the 1990s when our media landscape was increasingly digitalized. Back then, research mainly focused on the use of information and communication technology – also referred to as ICT – instead of regarding media non-use (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1996). Within the majority of research, non-users were either not taken into account at all or they were regarded with concern as there was an overall fear of an upcoming digital divide within our modern societies (Selwyn, 2003, p. 100). The assumption was that using ICT would be “a prerequisite to living and working in the ‚information society‘“ (Selwyn, 2003, p.99–100) and refusing to use ICT would result in exclusion and actually not being able to participate in societal discourses. Of course, coming from this point of view, non-use is quite an uncommon behavior to adopt as it makes life a lot more difficult. Even more, it was considered as disadvantageous as ICT were perceived as overall beneficial for all individuals (Selwyn, 2003, p. 106). The narratives of the information society were, and sometimes still are, highlighting the ideological belief that “technology promote social integration and community, and are the key to easing conflict and the universal solvent for social problems“ (Lievrouw, 1998, p. 87). These common assumptions about the positive benefits of ICT evoked a research attitude where non-users were considered as primarily not being able to adapt to the new technology. It raised the question why people would voluntarily refuse to use modern, beneficial media if they could? Non-use then was portrayed as lacking technological skills, computerphobia or technophobia (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1996; Selwyn, 2003, p. 103). Even though these might have actually been accountable reasons for non-use, the body of research was quite biased towards non-users and, therefore, was actually studying non-use of media as the irrelevant, little sister of actual media use. It was the “abnormality and deviation from the norm; a deficit to be overcome, a problem to be solved“ (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1996). At this point, Selwyn (2003) argued for a more complex exploration of non-use and suggested going towards a multi-layered model of non-use that would go beyond the close-minded standpoints of ideological beliefs on the positive benefits of the information society. He argued that examining the non-use of ICT more in depth could bring valuable insights into the overall constitution of an information society and also contribute to a better understanding the use of ICT (Selwyn, 2003, p. 111–112).

Within the whole scientific discourse, perceptions began to shift towards a more nuanced way of analyzing media use and media non-use. Not using media was no longer seen as the mere opposite of using media; it was finally seen as selective disconnections from the mediatized worlds that are limited in time or a specific medium (Mainwaring, Chang & Anderson, 2004, p. 425). At this point, researchers began to realize that non-use can be more than not being able to use media and “as such can provide valuable insights into the social functioning and social milieu of technology“ (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1996). As one of the first one‘s in scientific research, Wyatt et al. (2002) categorized non-use into voluntary non-use and involuntary non-use. Distinguishing between these two was an important step towards examining media non-use as something more than people not using technology. It made the reasons for non-use accessible for scientific research for the first time because the differentiation made them visible. Throughout their paper “They came, they surfed, they went back to the beach“, Wyatt et al. (2002) divide non-users into four categories: resisters, rejecters, expelled and excluded. The resisters have no access to the Internet and they do not want to have it, which means they voluntarily choose not to use it. Resisters have had access in the past, but have at some point voluntarily decided not to use the Internet anymore. The expelled and excluded, on the other hand, are people who either never had access or they had but they lost it due to high costs or bad infrastructure. These are the people who involuntarily have no access and for that reason are non-users (Wyatt et al., 2002, p. 36–38). Especially the resisters and rejectors were a relatively new category within scientific research. The previous perception of a glorified and purely beneficial Internet has actually not allowed to see these people – even though they existed all the time. In a later on paper, Wyatt (2014) re-visits the categories of non- use and highlights the importance of analyzing the practices of use and non-use. According to Wyatt, especially the existence of resisters and rejecters “remind us to think carefully about what the expansion of the online world means for the offline world“ (Wyatt, 2014, n. p.).

Building on the foundation of this mere categorization of non-use, Satchell and Dourish (2009) analyzed six varieties of non-use within their paper “Beyond The User: Use And Non-Use in HCI“: Lagging adoption, active resistance, disenchantment, disenfranchisement, displacement and disinterest. I will now especially discuss the non- use of the four most important forms for this study. L agging adaption describes the form of non-use that has long been the equivalent for non-use – people who do not use technology because they cannot in terms of skills or ability. The authors emphasize how this group also describes people who are not yet using specific media or technology and that this stage must not be steady for the people that are in it. In contrast, active resistance as a form of non-use describes those who do not want to adapt a technology; those who voluntarily and actively refuse to use media. According to Satchell and Dourish (2009), active resistance is part of an overall desire to manage new technologies and, therefore, the active resistors as much as the fast adopters are “both responding to and shaping cultural interpretations of technology“ (2009, p. 11). Following these assumptions about active resistance, non-users might not participate in media technology but, by not using some kind of media, they might participate in negotiating the values and norms of media use in general. However, Satchell and Dourish (2009) perceive resistance to technology more as an avoidance of unhealthy habits or behaviors and not so much as political statements. Another interesting form of non-use the authors have identified is disenchantment. As one variant of active refusal, disenchantment describes people who are nostalgic about previous forms of media technology and refuse to use modern media because it seems inauthentic to them. Interestingly, all inventions of new technology – even the now nostalgic, analogue one‘s – have once been new and inauthentic to some (Satchell & Dourish, 2009, p. 12). Lastly, Satchell and Dourish identified disinterest as a form of non-use. For people within this group of non-users, the media technology they are not using simply seems irrelevant to them (2009, p. 13). Out of all varieties of non- use, the authors mentioned lagging adoption as the most common form of non-use. A few years later, Baumer et al. (2013) examined the practices of Facebook non-use and came up with different findings. They analyzed data of people who did not use Facebook and the non-users did not report any desire to join and rather gave “well-reasoned explanations for their non-use“ (Baumer et al., 2013, p. 3264). It seemed as if the majority of non-users of Facebook were not so much late adopters, but active resisters. These results indicate that media non-use has become more of an active choice than an involuntary lack of skills. With communication technology permeating the everyday life, expressions of non-use might be growing in variety and number (Gomez, Foot, Young, Paquet-Kinsley & Morrison, 2015), increasing the amount of people who actively choose not to use media. So, even though the attitude and perceptions of non-use have eventually opened up towards a more nuanced examination of non-use practices, I still think that these beginning years of disconnection movements are quite representative for how society handles abnormality as a problem that needs to be solved. And we need to remember that, even nowadays, being online and available almost all the time has become the new normal. Maybe not a normality that is portrayed as purely beneficial to the users, but a ,new normal‘ that has actually become necessary to adapt in order to live, work, communicate and interact in modern times.

Beyond that, the categorizations of non-users already touch on the motivations of non- users. Whereas Wyatt et al. (2002) have provided a first step into distinguishing between voluntary non-use and involuntary non-use, Satchell and Dourish (2009) have concretized the motivations of non-users into more detailed descriptions like active resistance, disenchantment or disinterest. Dividing non-use into more than just one category has opened up a research strand that is still growing and differentiating into new sub-strands nowadays. The motivations on this individual level of non-use therefore have been examined in much more detail throughout the following years. Results show that individuals who disconnect make this decision based on various and complex reasons. There is a lot of “peer pressure, negative stigmatization, technology fatigue, [. . .] or the distress over violating personal or professional relationships“ (Hesselberth, 2017, p.1997) influencing the decision to use or not to use media. Therefore, the decision to unplug is usually framed by social, cultural and motivational aspects that have an impact on why and when someone decides not to use media. Hence, disengaging from technology usually is rather individual and the non-use can differ in longevity, medium of abstinence and the reason for the disconnection (Hesselberth, 2017, p. 1997).

2.2.2 The emerging discourse on unplugging and categorizing the terms

Whereas media non-use has long been neglected as a rest category, the discourse around unplugging has intensified throughout the last decade. Many studies have examined unplugging regarding different aspects, motivations and contexts. From looking at previous studies and results, I realized that there are multiple terms used to refer to the practice of unplugging: disconnection, digital detox, media refusal, media resistance, technology pushback or media non-use – just to name the most prevalent ones. I am now assuming that the variety of wordings is not only down to the fact that researchers want to distinguish themselves from others and make their own study more unique by using new terms for the same phenomenon. They are much rather using different terms because unplugging is not always just unplugging: it inherits matters of health, politics, technology refusal, desires for socializing to even financial reas ons. However, according to Rauch (2014), people are using “the same words to express different understandings of the practice and expressing the same practices with different words“ (2014, p. 244). So, even though the terms often have a certain meaning behind them pointing towards the motivation, they are being used in different contexts and, sometimes even, for a different meaning. Examining how the terms are actually being used and categorizing what they stand for, is an important step while reviewing the study results in more depth. Throughout my research of relevant studies for unplugging, I came up with these dimensions of unplugging: health-related, technological, political, social, personal and religious. Categorizing unplugging and the terms used by previous research, enables me to discuss the results more structured and might reveal the many facets of unplugging more clearly and in more detail.

The first category I will outline here is the health-related dimension of unplugging. People choosing to unplug in order to improve their overall well-being often refer to it as a digital detox or a digital diet. Using the term detox indicates that one aims to “remove a poison or poisonous effect from something and possibly entails withdrawal, as from drug and alcohol“ (Rauch, 2014, p. 245). Detoxifying the body therefore means to get rid of things negatively affecting the overall health. Dieting is similar in the sense that it entails health aspects and refers to the day to day eating patterns of one person and more precisely, people often refer to their daily intakes as a diet when they try to implement a special meal plan into their everyday life – for example restricting oneself from sugar or other health harming substances (Rauch, 2014, p. 244–245). In the context of unplugging, people use the terms detox and diet when they are referring to disconnection as a means of health improvements but also to raise productivity. Timothy Ferriss (2011) is the well- known author of “The 4-hour workweek“ where he suggests a Low-Information Diet in order to become more productive within less time than ever before. By limiting the intake overload coming from digital media, people will gain more time freedom and perform better in work life (s, 2011, p. 86–88). Within the narratives and advice-giving content on digital diets and detoxes, people are comparing the constant consumption of media information to the way we are consuming unhealthy foods like sugar or fast food. According to Johnson (2012), we are experiencing an ,information obesity‘ which is similar to physical obesity in the sense that it is not healthy. However, information obesity is perceived as more dangerous as it is quite difficult to recognize, much in contrast to physical obesity where one can easily check a few things and be certain. The motivation for a digital diet – here referred to as an information diet – is to become aware of the amount of information consumed on the daily basis and to become smarter as well as more productive (Johnson, 2012, p. 76–78). Other authors have portrayed digital diets as an approach to technology which helps with improving time management and having more authentic relationships (Sieberg, 2011, p. 6–7). Sieberg compares his action plan for a digital diet with a recipe book that “outlines an overall food plan – it gives you options“ (2011, p. 29). Hence, he uses the term diet in the sense that people should adapt the concept of a food-diet into their patterns of media consumption. A digital diet, according to Sieberg (2011), is about moderation and not about cutting things completely (2011, p. 8). Beyond that, people are supposing a variety of benefits for one‘s health: improving on real-life connection with others, finding time to slow-down, getting outside more and increasing sleep time (Michaels, 2016; Reboot, 2018).


Excerpt out of 101 pages


Unplugging practices and experiences in a world of media
Unplug your life
University of Augsburg  (Institut für Medien, Wissen und Kommunikation)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Unplugging, Mediatization
Quote paper
Lisa-Marie Deißmann (Author), 2019, Unplugging practices and experiences in a world of media, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/494075


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