What Do You Do Without A Screen?

I’m not sure when I realized a determination to continue to learn and do things that do not actively require a digital screen.  

This desire to be present and hands-on could have been fostered at an early age; I remember putting on a plastic hard hat and hammering away on rocks, shards of stone rocketing off into the grass, while my uncle fixed the foundation to our barn.  I remember constructing forts out of plywood and potato guns out of PVC piping (sorry, mom).  My friend Chris once allowed me to borrow his stick-shift Honda Accord for a week so I could learn how to drive a manual.

Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.
Here I am at age three, attempting to help out with some paint scraping.

With each passing year and new gadget becoming the latest rage, it’s far too easy to let convenience, leisure, and screen time consume all waking hours. I’m victim to bleary eyes from staring at a screen, checking my phone too often, and defaulting to mindless internet browsing.

But I check myself. I don’t feel good if I fail to step away from technology on a fairly regular basis.

While I’m an active Twitter user and blogger, my students don’t understand what I do when I’m not teaching.  “Do you have a life?” they inevitably ask, when I tell them I haven’t seen the latest viral YouTube clip, or TV show, or haven’t heard that a pop star has gone into rehab.  I’ve got hobbies, I tell them.  I like to try and build things, cook, brew beer, hunt deer (although this past season was my first shut out, to my dismay).  They shake their heads.  They are truly perplexed, but they don’t do much questioning when I tell them I’m glad I grew up right before the smartphone revolution. 

Is it becoming a norm in society to not know how to do anything of disengaged from digital connectivity? Is it the norm to pursue as much leisure and convenience as one can?

Sure seems like it. Effort becomes devalued, as does work, in favor of instant gratification, a point Wendell Berry makes in The Art of the Commonplace: “We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them.”

With Berry’s quote in mind, I suppose a lot of what I like to do might be considered work or not worth the effort. But here’s what I take pride in being able to do:

1.  I can drive a 5-speed.

2.  I can–at least most years–kill a deer with a bow and arrow, gut it, butcher it, and stockpile various cuts of meat for the year.

3.  I can build simple furniture like bookshelves and coffee tables.

4.  I can make my own beer.

5.  I can make a variety of home improvements or repairs, from refinishing hardwood floors to constructing rain barrels.

6.  I can make bread from scratch.

Being able to do these things is part of my identify and fulfillment; I don’t desire to buy everything I consume, nor do I desire to save time in order to free up more internet browsing or Tweeting.  

I often challenge my students to disconnect and find a hobby that does not require them to be glued to a screen. Many remain glued to their screens while I tell them this. I wonder if, at some point, they’ll have their own epiphanies and start to engage themselves, with others, and the world around them in different ways.

What do you take pride in being able to do without a screen?  What are some pros and cons to the relentless onslaught of technologies that promote leisure and entertainment?  How well would you cope without your phone or internet for 48 hours?


  1. It’s also hugely changed (for the better) my ability to make a living quickly and easily …I needed to find a source, fast, in Australia this week (!) and with two (!) FB referrals (both strangers to me), got an amazing contact very quickly. The dirty secret of journalism is how easily we find sources now online…MUCH easier than the old days.

  2. Ha! Maybe I’ll quiz the students about threading a needle:) They are truly lost without their phones, which is pretty scary in a way.
    I hear you regarding going screen-free. I enjoy so many aspects of my digital life, and if has opened up writing and networking opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise.
    Will look forward to your post if you run with this idea.

  3. Hi Robin,
    Thanks for the comment! If and when my wife and I have kids, it’s going to be a massive challenge to harness the power of screens while maintaining a presence in the physical world. As a teacher, I’m not longer shocked, but worried a bit, when I see so many high school students unable to deal with quiet, with no access to their phones or internet, and few passions outside of leisure and entertainment.

  4. Love this, as well…Might (?) borrow this idea for a post…with a link, of course!

    I have a lot of manual skills and they give me a lot of pleasure: cooking, drawing, painting, photography, many sports, indoor and outdoor. Flower arranging, sewing by hand (how many of your students, I seriously wonder, have ever threaded a needle then repaired a piece of clothing or sewn on a button?) I feel positively Victorian even saying it at this point.

    It’s challenging to go screen-free NOT because I’m addicted to screen-time but because so much of our lives have gravitated to this medium; i.e. I rarely phone anyone but have lively chats with pals every day on Facebook; just found out about an awesome journalism fellowship via Twitter. I work at a laptop and play Scrabble, solo, on an Ipad.

    But I take your point and it’s a very important one.

  5. Love your post. We are struggling with this too. While I can do a ton of things unplugged, every time I get a new gadget (that I love!), I tend to find ways to use them more often just because they are fun. But no, I would be a-ok unplugging. I can forage for wild mushrooms. Name most of the wildflowers and birds and amphibians I see outside. Plant a garden. If there was any snow, I can make bread and yogurt. I could snowshoe or ski –I think this is the problem w/winter, cold but no snow! Definitely have this problem w/9 year old son too, he’s great w/technology and science and I see technology helping him overall but he seems to forget he had a nature-boy life since acquiring all the screens. Definitely working out the balance.

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