Giving up on gadgets: 'Tech refuseniks' junk their cellphones, handhelds
By Maggie Jackson, Globe Correspondent, 5/8/05
No one gives you counseling before you sign the contract for a cellphone, but perhaps someone should.
A little advice might warn us that cellphones, handheld computers, and other gadgets change our lives, and not always for the better. Instead, we often hit the 'on' button then sink or swim.
A small but growing number of otherwise tech-friendly people, however, are saying 'enough' to the assumption that more technology is best. They're not neo-Luddites, inheritors of the 19th-century movement to destroy machines. Call them 'tech-refuseniks': people who thoughtfully choose which gadgets they adopt.
"These are people that have the means, education, background, they fit the profile, and yet they're checking out," says Dan Ness, principal analyst of MetaFacts Inc., a technology market research firm in Encinitas, Calif. "It's not just about the haves and have-nots, it's also about the wants and don't-wants."
Refuseniks are hard to track because, for example, some people who don't own a cellphone perhaps can't afford one. But there is evidence of a trend. Eight percent of Americans live in homes with Internet access yet don't use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research center. One-fifth of cellphone owners who don't have computers had a PC and gave it up, according to MetaFacts. Others draw the line at the cellphone, a handheld, or even an answering machine.
Durham, N.H.-based technology consultant Ted Demopoulos stopped using his handheld after getting too many mundane e-mails whose senders demanded immediate responses. One day, he shot back a group e-mail saying, "I can't drop everything and answer unnecessary messages!" a tactic that won him only a short reprieve. Now he stays accessible via cellphone because he says people are more judicious about phoning than e-mailing. The handheld "cut down on my productivity," says Demopoulos. "I was always being interrupted."
Jon Potter, 25, relishes his e-mail but refuses to get a cellphone, to protect his privacy. "It's important to me to have times where I don't have to think about everyone else," says Potter, executive director of a Winooski, Vt.-based mentoring nonprofit, the Dream Program. His decision inconveniences his friends, "but it's something that I really value," he says.
Still, he admits that to many of his friends and colleagues, his decision is a "running joke." Refuseniks often suffer ribbing and pressure when they opt out of a device. Janemarie Mulvey, a Washington, D.C., economist, was at first reluctant to talk about her decision not to have a Blackberry, fearing she'd seem inaccessible. Still, she's adamant about her choice because she fears she'd wind up "checking it every hour."
Limiting work, interruptions, and even social discourse sometimes complicates relationships but is crucial in an age when we can do anything, anywhere. If we don't draw our own boundaries, who will?
Nevertheless, deciding whether a gadget is necessary isn't easy. Useful devices sometimes infringe on our values, such as our desire for quiet or family time. "So some people will reject a technology despite its obvious benefits," says James E. Katz, a professor of communication at Rutgers University.
Taking a break from a technology can provide perspective, says Eric Brende, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who wrote about his experiences living in a rural sect that spurns most technology.
Brende, who is now a rickshaw driver in St. Louis, has a cellphone and an e-mail account, but no computer or television. Technology "can muddle up your life very much by disguising itself as labor-saving," he says, "when in fact, it's labor-multiplying."
Maggie Jackson's Balancing Acts column appears every other week. She can be reached at .