Pulling the Plug

In the spring of 1969, my Goodwill TV bit the dust. I never got around to replacing it. My household today contains a television set, but it plays only movies. There’s no cable or aerial reception here, and we have no dish. I’ve been without television for nearly forty years, and I’ve never been sorry. When my stepchildren, Tom and Dory, lived with us, they adapted to the absence of ESPN, cartoons, and Magnum, P.I., and we all read books together before the wood stove each evening. I felt we were living an improbable but lovely idyll.

An adulthood without TV has left me not only culturally spotty but also unselective, so that in a hotel room, if I accidentally turn the thing on, I am in danger of becoming a complete television slut. In the red-eyed morning after, I rue the loss of the sweet night’s sleep, the chapter read, the dreams unvisited by drivel and mayhem. Though I fondly remember sitting around our first big set in the ’50s, watching Zorro and Cosmo Topper, and my first huge crush on Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, I never regret releasing my home from television’s thrall. I’m not smug about it; I’ll shamelessly descend on televisioned friends for an election or beg a tape of an HBO concert, and I’ve become addicted to both Dallas and The West Wing when living in normally equipped homes for a season. It is recognition of this weakness that keeps me tuned out: I am just not disciplined enough to live with this device. Oh, I can exercise discipline when I really want to — less beer, more exercise, and the ritual of a daily walk, if only to the mailbox or the compost. But the immediate presence of the source of temptation always tests your resolution more keenly. So, like a bad boy who wouldn’t eat his sprouts, no TV for me.

Today there are so many more screens, so many electronic appurtenances, appliances — or say appendages, given the way the body politic has been jacked into them. This is not news: the suzerainty of the cell phone, the implant of the iPod, the bramble patch of the Blackberry, the prosthesis of the Palm Pilot, and now the whole enchilada rolled into the iPhone — it’s all old hat, as new as it is. In fact, the condition of human bondage to gizmos itself is an old condition. The most common postures today, cell phone elbowed to the ear or digital camera held at arm’s length as if intermediary to the actual world, may be recent evolutionary mutations, but that doesn’t mean there were no precedents. In Charles Frazier’s novel Thirteen Moons, protagonist Will Cooper laments the imposition of the telephone in his home — “So urgent, like a watchman sounding a fire alarm, but surely false in the shrill report of the tiny hammer beating frantically against the two acorn-shaped bells.” (If he could only hear the array of irritating ringtones today!) “What message short of disaster could be so pressing as to require that horrible jangle?” Will asks. “Use the post, and learn the virtues of patience and silence.” This, nearly a hundred years ago!

But some kind of evolution is taking place, and cannot be ignored even by the most resolutely backward among us. At a recent family wedding, my brother-in-law Leon challenged my concern over all the switched-on kids, swapping (as I saw it) the rites of fort-building and crawdad-catching for the rights of a high-speed wireless connection. “How do you know,” Leon asked me, “that these kids aren’t just as stimulated, and ultimately fulfilled, as we were by making up our own games outdoors?” I had to admit that he had a point. How indeed could I be sure? But by the third glass of champagne I had an answer — or at least a couple of questions: For one, what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat? And where will all the conservationists come from when kids no longer have a patch of ground that they can truly call my space?

I’ve been thinking along these lines partly because e-mail has been driving me bats. The only time I can actually feel my normally underachieving blood pressure rise is before the e-screen, inbox at 98 percent full or so, more spilling in by the hour, chiefly importuning, and no chance of ever appeasing it all. And unlike a letter, there’s no grace period with e-mail: send one, and the answer comes back in a flash, demanding another right now. This creates masses of unnecessary work and entropy, which is what the e in e-mail really stands for, but worse is sitting butt-stapled to the swivel chair, eye-sutured to the flat screen, as the pernicious electroglyphs strike the terms of my existence. Years ago I took my home offline because writing, hearth, and health proved incompatible with having e-mail under my roof. Twice a week, I’ve been going online at the village computer center a few miles from home.

I know I am missing out on some wonderful exchanges and capabilities. But I already weep over all the indoor hours when I could actually be out, combing the moss for waterbears or contemplating the profound mystery of where people get the time to read blogs, for gods’ sakes — is it at the complete expense of books? If I had a mobile phone, I could be available for anyone to reach, anytime . . . except, as Greg Brown sings, “You can try me on the cell, but most places I want to be, it don’t work.”

I suspect that the mass capture of our synapses by electronica may threaten not only serenity but society itself. On a recent train trip, as I was writing with pencil on paper, with one eye out the window on yellow-headed blackbirds and paint foals, I saw something that appalled me: a youngish mother, supplicating babe in one arm, the other grafted to a cell phone on which she was playing a video game. The device went on and on, zinging, pinging, and ringing away, as the baby begged for its mother’s presence. She’d pause a stroke to shove a chip into the child’s mouth, or tell it to watch the passing lights, but she never looked it in the eyes. “You’ll drive everyone crazy if you keep on crying,” she scolded.

I told her that it was the noises from her machine that were driving us crazy. “Oh, this?” she said, and muted it, but kept on playing into the night. I wanted to add, “. . . and your rotten excuse for mothering.” Then the scene repeated itself with a different mother, a different baby, in the Sacramento station. These mobile moms brought to mind experiments with baby monkeys given sock dolls for surrogate mothers, and how the babies became sociopathic. This could be worse: sibling envy for a Nokia. Back in that lively spring of 1969 when the tube gave out, I certainly had no business sitting sessile before a screen. Now, having just entered what will be, at best, the last quarter or so of my life, I have even less. The last words left for his friends by a fine northeast Oregon naturalist, writer, and man, Frank Conley, felled way too soon by melanoma, drove this understanding home for me: “There will be a memorial service every day you take yourself, or someone else, out into the great outdoors — away from the monitors, videos, and TVs we see mirrored in our eyes — and learn something about birds, butterflies, or biscuitroot.” Amen, Frank.

So I’m going to do it — to pull the e-plug, although I’ll probably do a Web search now and then at the computer center or the library. Time will tell whether I can make a living without e-mail. In the meantime, I’m going back to the post, and the virtues of patience and silence. My loss, you’ll say. Maybe so. We’ll see . . .

ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE grew up and learned his butterflies in Colorado, where he fell in love with the Magdalena Alpine and its high-country habitat, the setting of his novel Magdalena Mountain. He took his Ph.D. in butterfly ecology at Yale University, and worked as a conservation biologist in Papua New Guinea, Oregon, and Cambridge, England. His twenty-five books include Chasing Monarchs, Wintergreen (which received a John Burroughs Medal), Where Bigfoot Walks, Sky Time in Gray’s River and The Tangled Bank, a collection of his columns from Orion. A Yale-trained ecologist and a Guggenheim Fellow, he still studies butterflies, is a full-time writer living in southwest Washington, and is one of Orion’s most frequent contributors.


  1. Amen to that!

    How bitter sweet that these musings are posted on-line. Indeed technolust has most of us firmly in its grips. Long ago My Love and I have chosen to abandon television as inapropriate technology fostering zomby style consumerism but so far the internet has not lost its appeal.

    We live in a time when we are able to learn more about more than at any time in human history. This week I learned about the apprenticeship of bees, the making of hydrogen from microbes, and the 64 million year cycle of our solar systems exposure to cosmic rays as it rises above the shockwave of our galaxy, to name just a few.

    The internet has provided the only medium that was bold enough to expose the truth about the 911 scam to make money from war and it may well be the tool that helps us come to grips with the terminal illness of our species.

    Having defended the medium, I would concur with condemming the message. Whenever we replace our real community of friends and neighbors with a virtual community we loose the connection that reminds us of our interdependence.

    But then it wasn’t the internet that caused that disconnect. Rather it was the automobile that allowed us to construct our virtual community by carefully selecting distant individuals to be part of it while ignoring those that live all around us.

    May I respectfully suggest that while you are pulling plugs you might want to disconnect from that most pervasive and distructive appendage of all, the family car.

    On A beam of Light
    when not riding my bicycle)

  2. What can one say on an internet chat site about dumping the whole mess? I, like Mr Pyle, have moved away from the boob tube. However, I still watch movies, communicate by e-mail more than snail mail, get news over the computer, watch some You-Tube clips and “mock-u-mercials” and even read, write and research on the computer. This is no substitute for personal interaction but I do consider it one degree removed from tv so, with my lack of knowledge of soaps, sitcoms, and unreality shows, I consider myself an ill-vid-erate (i.e.: non-conversent about tv programs). I could watch tv (the set still works) and have had addictive behavior about watching it, but now that I’m 5 or 6 years removed from any serious tv watching, it has lost its seductive hold. So life after tv looks rather nice. And though you won’t have to pry my “cold dead fingers” from my keyboard,I’ll keep my e-mail for now, if you please, and I’ll continue to admire my Amish neighbors, and perhaps Mr. Pyle.

  3. I moved to a small town in Washington State in 1986. I had no family nearby and only two or three acquaintances within a few miles so the television was my main companion. Except that I would fall asleep, sometimes after watching a program for the second time that hadn’t been worth watching the first time and my immediate response when the white noise woke me up was to be angry that I had so little going on in my life that I was giving my hours, ones that I would never have again, to boredom.
    I had contracted to have the creek bed on my property widened and it happened that as the backhoe came into my front yard, I was leaving for the weekend. The backhoe operator and I exchanged a few words, I waved so-long and as my car moved slowly backwards, the backhoe moving past the front of the house, hit the TV guide wires. I sat frozen in the driver’s seat as the TV antennae collapsed before my eyes. The pain that shot through my body was unexpected and shocking. Every thought of lonliness, empty nights, and other miseries, danced before my blinking eyes.
    The machine operator leaped from the backhoe, raced to my car and apologized.
    “I’m so sorry…I didn’t realize the hoe was that extended. I’ll finish the work and get a couple of guys and we’ll put the antennae up as good as new.”
    I stared at him not saying a word while my heart pounded but in that moment I knew what had to be done.
    “No, don’t do that. I think you’ve just done what I didn’t have the courage to do myself. Drag the antennae around behind the barn. I’m going to do without it for 30 days. If I can’t stand it will you put it back up for me?”
    “You can count on…and I am truly sorry about this.”
    “Don’t be. I didn’t understand why I’ve been so disappointed in the way I’ve been spending my evenings but only an addiction could hurt this much. I need to go through withdrawal.”
    Like the author, I too have a televison set…no cable, no dish…just for DVDs of my own chosing. And I too sit on the bed in a hotel and watch anything that comes on the screen, but I know that it’s only for one evening.


  4. Robert,

    I still recall the fun I had discussing mutual interests we had in mt. beavers and other natural history topics by email some years back. I originally met you at a SCB conference in BC but was able to keep in touch for a bit online. I found it very enjoyable and worthwhile. Other methods could have worked to stay in touch too, but seem less likely to have been used. I also find it a necessary tool in my government life, essential it seems. A necessary evil that has overloaded us all.

    I hear you in terms of time better spent outdoors and of course these days you can take the online world with you most every where you go. I know it followed me to Brazil this summer. I don’t recommend that but the chat I had with my doctor online was very helpful when I went down ill in the middle of the Pantanal. Amazing too.

    I think for now I’ll just crank the spam filter a little higher or maybe dump an email account or two and strive to better manage my online time. Lord knows it is addictive! Meanwhile I can feed another netflix dvd into my 15 year old tv.

    Maybe you can drop me an email sometime, to let me know how it’s working (kidding).

    Good luck!

    p.s. I would likely have missed this if not for the email notice Orion sent me tonight…

  5. I long ago gave up TV, with the exception of Bill Moyers, and devoted my watching to old comedies which I had taped years before, and then to Britcoms which I bought.

    Some Britcoms; they aren’t all that great.

    Long before my own worries about e-mail began, I had come to rely on them for information, since I had begun putting together a regular newsletter with which to provide important news that somehow never found its way either onto TV or into my morning paper.

    There are certain things happening around the world and at home that the industry Czars (i.e.: our rulers) don’t want us to know, and I thought it was a public srvice to get that information out into the daylight.

    I can only do that because I am retired; otherwise I wouldn’t have the time. So I am locked into the computing machine much as the baby is locked onto its mother’s breast.

    The only thing I have to look forward to, the way things seem today, is my own death. The drawback to that is that as a non-believer, I don’t expect to be there to be happy about it.

  6. Hello,

    Please think about the paper, gasoline and human resources involved in snail mail. Which one is enriching our lives e-mail or snail mail? What will help our great-grandchildren? What did we learn from our great-grandparents? Conserve resources and share them equitably!

  7. Response to Jane:

    You are quite right. However it is not a black-and-white issue. I have now encouraged my subscribers to accept my paper in pdf format, which is sent as an e-mail attachment. I have offered to suspend their subscription fees, which never did cover my out-of-pocket expenses anyway.

  8. I moved my place of residence recently and it took 19 days to get my on-line hook-up. This interim allowed me to experience a contrast:

    My first time back on-line conversing via e-mail, I was confronted with brash feelings of sensory shallowness and empathic emptiness.

    This feeling continued for the next 5 to 6 times I went on-line, and then wore off.

    I am appalled that this on-line, 2-dimensional activity is almost the first thing I do almost every morning. And sadden to realize that I become so easily adapted to a lesser aliveness, lesser organic communication and quality of being in the moment.

  9. my first reason for a computer was as a student (at 40 yrs.old) I could access and reserve books from the UofO library. Then, much to my amazement, in a writing class (which I brought my yellow mellow Lab dog to) the submission of our assignments were to be on floppy disks!…no mention of 8 1/2 X 11 double spaced typed – just Word format. Some of us are forced into this computer business as a requirement like a tool or manual. That being said, there are always workarounds and exceptions but the mainstream absorption leads towards the eventual normal standard. Yes, we can learn vast amounts by searching (which i think should be called SEARCH AND DISTRACTION due to the haystacks we are presented with when doing a pinpoint search) however, whether we spend the time reading books or on line learning we still do not attain the tantamount of learning which is knowing- unless we have a direct experience. As my father used to respond to my teenage responses of “I know”, ” Yes, Lisa but do you know it in your heart?” So far, my experience with computers has yet to produce the wisdom that is knowing with our hearts.

  10. You bring up a lot of comments similar to those that have been bouncing around between I and my friends (in our forties, generally).

    I remember that life before cell phones wasn’t all bad. When I was a kid a long distance call from our grandparents was important. (Anyone else remember standing in line to say hello?) Nowadays I’m puzzled, amused or annoyed at people who walk around with those things on their ears, talking to the voices in their heads. A province formerly occupied only by lunatics. On the other hand, I sure did like it when my truck broke down in the rain and I could call a tow truck to rescue me from the expressway.

    I’m hardly a Luddite.

    Like the author I’ve lived without a lot of the newest conviniences.
    Maybe like so many other things it simply comes down to moderation? I’m a big fan of walks, books, movies in theatres, birds in field glasses.

    We must always remember that the real computer is the one between our ears, and what fun can be had updating the hard drive by living life directly!

  11. Yes, I too smiled at the contradiction of reading Pulling the Plug online. I haven’t had TV for 30 yrs, tho I do watch movies.
    I don’t have a cell phone or any of that stuff-I don’t WANT to be that available. I don’t have a car–never have–or plumbing.
    But I LOVE my computer. BC, if I needed to look up something, I had to hitch and busride 11 mi. rt to the library. Now, I only have to go to the computer. We all make the adjustments that work for us. On the rare occasion when I see TV at somebody’s house, I’m NOT sucked in: I’m only terrified by how stupid it is. No wonder we’re growing another generation of people tuned in mostly to shopping and violence.

  12. Joanne–

    I even tend to avoid movies these days. The old ones I liked when they were new, seem dull, and the newer ones are too long.

    If I’m in someone else’s house and they have the TV on, I leave. I wonder if that’s why I don’t have a lot of friends? Nah!

    It’s because I say what I think.

  13. There was a few lines in your article that gave me pause…
    “But by the third glass of champagne I had an answer—or at least a couple of questions: For one, what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat? And where will all the conservationists come from when kids no longer have a patch of ground that they can truly call my space?”
    I think the current generation, however much they are removed from nature, seem to care and act more passionately on its behalf than all the generations that have come before. We are in this mess because of other generations…and some of them were ‘in touch with their habitats’. I’m almost forty and my parents and my in-laws (all outdoor types) still are not sold on “global warming” or “treehuggers”.
    I just think this is a thread that really needs to be explored.

  14. The internet is not without an enormous ecological “footprint.” See Winter 2008 Synthesis/Regeneration for an article I just wrote on this. Look under “The Energy Nightmare…” or something like that. (I didn’t choose the title.) Meanwhile, turn off the screen and get out your banjo or accordion. jam

  15. Bill McKibben was prophetic about this, as about so much else. Our vaunted Information Age really is an “Age of Missing Information.” But rather than pull the plug in a literal way, I’m going to continue tasking myself each day to pull away from the keyboard and the email in responsible moderation. Our evolutionary health depends on our learning to do this.

  16. Response to Jane:

    You are right to remember the resources used in snail mail–paper, gasoline, and the like. But remember, too, that our electronic gizmos aren’t created in a vacuum. All the plastics, copper wiring (read: strip mining), chemicals, and global transportation required to ship them around the world add up to their own cause for concern. Perhaps it is six in one, and a half dozen in the other, as my dad used to say.

  17. Dave Coulter,

    You are not alone.My prayers for the children of cell-phone bareing
    mothers as get a glimpse of the new reality,”parents who are not there”.
    Part of this generation will miss having of the best teacher of all, Mother.

  18. Response to Howard Seaton;

    Undoubtedly your freinds are everything the world needs. They are informed ,activist,open -minded.
    Television/eletronics has produced some of the
    least informed youth in the developed world. The key word is “some”.The average attention
    span in classrooms today is pathetic:i.e. law school classes
    where students play with their laptops.
    Your generation mat be keeping it
    toghether,but as always it’s the work of a very few against the growing masses of uninformed
    Keep up the good work.

  19. To ring in the New Year, I ended internet connectivity in my home. It was my third try and to prove it was for real, I even turned the dial-up cables into clothesline. Wow! How much energy I have to do things I really want to do, like write, read, make stuff, talk to friends, and massage my cat! You know how in Feng Shui, the bathroom doors are supposed to stay closed all the time so that life force doesn’t go down the toilet? It turns out that the computer was like that, a big energy vacuum. I knew it was time to kick the habit when I started turning it on just to see if anyone loved me, and googling things like “How to find God.”

    Now, I am writing poetry, prose, and letters on a Brother Selectric typewriter which has such a satisfying clang and ding that it feels like conducting an orchestra.

  20. I agree, mostly. However, sitting home watching Brady Bunch re-runs is one thing, listening to MIT physics lectures for free on my iPod is another thing. I cannot afford to go to MIT or live in Mass, but I now can go to school there, for free. Amazing.

  21. The Internet joins a long list of technological innovations–radio, FM radio, television, cable television, etc.–that are going to make us more democratic and smarter. (Ahem.) One neglected aspect of the Internet is resource (especially electricity) usage. See “The Energy Nightmare of Server Farms.” Anyone who has lived nose-to-nose with the reality of resource extraction would know better. Jane Anne Morris, author of “Energy Nightmare” (in Synthesis/Regeneration, Winter 2008)

  22. Indeed, just before receiving a link to this article from a dear friend many miles away, I had deactivated my Facebook account after having it for just over 2 years. Before that, it was Myspace, although I’ve completely abandoned that as well since becoming a social networking addict. I don’t have a TV either, just the computer which is meant for school and work, and the occasional movie on Netflix. I noticed that the site was taking up much of my time, especially after finding an app for it on my iphone. But with an internet connection in my house I became a complete junkie. When I closed out all the Facebook history in my browser, I noted that I had visited the site nearly 6,000 times since May. I was dumbfounded. Since I don’t believe in coincidence, I’m taking the message from this article and the timing of my absorption in it as a huge pat on the back for removing myself from the fray of never-ending socializing. May my communication in the future be of a more human nature!

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