Read and Think!

Post date: Jun 22, 2012 2:1:55 AM

Let's go offline for a day

by Edric Sng

22 June 2012

Tomorrow is Turn Off Your Screen Day. Never heard of it? Of course not, I've just made it up.

In case it needs explaining, the concept is simple. Tomorrow, when you wake up, you will not check your phone for messages before you've even stepped out of bed. You will not check your email on your iPad over breakfast.

How will you survive? The way people used to in the days before technology became a lifestyle: Reach out and touch somebody.

Last month, in a speech at Boston University, Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt challenged graduates to tear their eyes away from their smartphones and computer screens for an hour a day. "Take your eyes off that screen and look into the eyes of the person you love. Have a conversation, a real conversation," he said.

A revelation - a man at the top of the juggernaut search engine who is in no small way responsible for this era of information overload telling the next generation of leaders that it's okay to be disconnected from the rest of the virtual world.

That it's okay if you don't know what your friends are having for dinner because you don't have access to Facebook, or if you lose your mayorship of the bus stop at the foot of your block of flats. The world will keep spinning, as they say.


The problem with social media is that, too often, it's an excuse for people to be anti-social.

Have you visited The "pptpf" stands for "pictures of people taking photos of their food". (Sample post: "They took photos of their ice cream, then drank the melted puddles afterwards.")

Two minutes to set up the shot, two minutes to post the picture on Facebook, 20 minutes furtively checking for "Likes" to your post. How much good conversation could you be missing in that spell?

The backlash has already begun, in the form of the latest trend: Phonestacking. You do this literally; before a meal with friends or family, everyone stacks the phones face down in a pile in the middle of the dining table. Of course, phones will vibrate and start to ring. The first person to crack and check his phone has to pick up the bill for the entire table.

"Stephie", the 20-year-old who invented the game in California a few months ago, said: "The basic premise is to just get people open to the idea of staying active and attentive to one another."

A couple of months ago, a New York Times commentary declared the death of conversation.

"We are tempted to think that our little 'sips' of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don't. Email, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places - in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation," lamented psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, in the commentary.

"We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true. If we are unable to be alone, we are far more likely to be lonely.

"We are alone together - a tribe of one."

And the effect of all this technology in our lives is not merely psychological. A study last month found that snubbing the outdoors for books, video games and TV is the reason up to nine in 10 school-leavers in big East Asian cities are near-sighted.

The most myopic school-leavers in the world are to be found in cities in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and - gulp - Singapore, where between 80 and 90 per cent were affected, researchers found in the study published in The Lancet medical journal.


Let's recap. Bad social etiquette. Bad for relationships. Bad eyesight.

Technology is a grand thing - it would be false and foolish of this newspaper's Digital Media Editor to say otherwise - but we need to recognise that it really should be a tool which helps to make us more productive and more efficient, such that we have more time for the things that really matter.

As they say, no one's ever said on their deathbed: "I wish I had spent more time in the office."

It is time to selectively turn off our screens and learn to connect with people the good old-fashioned way: In conversation, in person.

Tomorrow is the start of the last weekend of the school holidays. If you're a parent, you will soon lose your children to the treadmill of homework and co-curricular activities. And you will, sooner than you know it, lose them to National Service, the working world, their spouses-to-be.

Spend time with them while they still want to spend time with you. Why waste a second on social networks? (And if you do take your kids out, I'd also recommend not popping a cartoon into the in-car DVD player. It's a screen too! Make conversation!)

For those of you who don't have children, make time for your friends and family. Pick up your tennis racquet again, or lace up your football boots. Go for a hike.

Worried that your boss might complain should you go incommunicado for a day? Tell him or her about it in advance. Then invite your boss out for a screen-free dinner.

On TODAY's part, at the heart of our newsroom is a projector screen we're very proud of. We call it the "big board", and it shows a constant stream of tweets from various news sources and newsmakers, keeping us aware of what's going on the world over.

Tomorrow, we'll be turning off the big board. I believe the world will keep spinning.

The writer is TODAY's Digital Media Editor. Feel free to drop him an email at sharing your experience of Turn Off Your Screen Day. Just don't send it until the day after.


    • How attached are you to technology? To a large extent or very little?

    • Can you survive without the Internet or your handphone for a day?

  • Reflect on why you feel the need to be constantly connected.

  • How has technology affected your life, for better or worse?