- Associated Press - Monday, October 29, 2012

CHICAGO — When was the last time you were alone and unwired? Really, truly by yourself. Just you and your thoughts — no cellphone, no tablet, no laptop.

Many of us crave that kind of solitude, though in an increasingly wired world, it’s a rare commodity.

We check texts and emails and update our online status at any hour — when we’re lying in bed or sitting at stoplights or on trains. Sometimes we even do so when we’re on the toilet.

We feel obligated, yes. But we’re also fascinated with this connectedness, constantly tinkering and checking in — an obsession that’s starting to get push-back from a small but growing legion of tech users who are feeling the need to unplug and get away.

“What might have felt like an obligation at first has become an addiction. It’s almost as if we don’t know how to be alone, or we are afraid of what we’ll find when we are alone with ourselves,” said Camille Preston, a tech and communication consultant based in Cambridge, Mass.

“It’s easier to keep doing than it is to be in stillness.”

One could argue that in this economy, it’s wise to be wired constantly — to stay on top of things, to please the boss. Ms. Preston said she knows people who get up in the middle of the night to see if their boss has sent them an email.

But she and others also see more hints of limit-setting going on, a movement of solitude-seekers with roots in the technology industry, ironically enough.

“When I think about truly disconnecting, I look to my truly techy friends,” said Cathy N. Davidson, a Duke University professor who co-directs the school’s doctoral lab in digital knowledge.

Those friends, she said, take long, unwired vacations and set “away messages” telling people to write back after they return. “And they stick to it,” Ms. Davidson said, wishing she could do the same.

“They’ve come up with a socially acceptable convention for their own absence from the world of technology, and everybody recognizes it.”

One organization, called Reboot, has started the Sabbath Manifesto, a call to unplug one day a week to find solitude — or simply to take a day of rest with family and friends.

Bigger corporations, some outside the tech industry, are starting to catch on to this type of limit-setting.

To encourage work-life balance, Volkswagen shuts off mobile email in Germany 30 minutes after employees’ shifts end and turns it back on 30 minutes before their next shift starts.

Google, Nike and The Huffington Post, among others, provide space for employees to take naps or meditate. The idea is that employees who take time to themselves to re-energize will be more productive.

John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist, said he thinks there just might be something to that.

He has spent much of his career tackling the topic of loneliness and isolation, which researchers have proved can affect humans adversely, all the way down to gene expression.

“Feeling ignored sparks feelings of loneliness,” said Mr. Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

But getting away, he said, is “the opposite of being lonely.”

It’s time that you take by choice, Mr. Cacioppo said. So while the cognitive effects still are being studied, he said it’s very likely that type of solitude is good for the brain.

Dan Rollman had little doubt of that when he and a few others from Reboot, a group of Jewish “thought leaders,” gathered in 2009. That’s when they created the Sabbath Manifesto, inspired by the traditional Jewish Sabbath but aimed at people from any background who are encouraged to unplug one day — any day — of the week.

The idea came to Mr. Rollman when he found himself craving a simpler time, when stores closed on Sundays and life slowed down.

“I knew I wanted a day of rest,” said Mr. Rollman, who is CEO of the company RecordSetter.com.

The Manifesto — described as “a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world” — has 10 principles. They are suggestions ranging from “avoid technology” and “connect with loved ones” to “get outside,” “drink wine” and “find silence.”

Mr. Rollman himself avoids doing work on Saturdays whenever he can and often unplugs altogether then — and encourages his employees to do the same.

“There’s a huge sense of relief,” Mr. Rollman said. “It is a liberating feeling to walk out of one’s door and not have your cellphone in your pocket.”

Leah Jones, a 35-year-old Chicagoan, hasn’t gone quite that far, but she has cut back, turning her cellphone to “silent” mode from 11:30 p.m. to 6 a.m. and putting it away when she goes out.

“I’m a better friend when I don’t have my phone in my hand,” said Ms. Jones, who is 35 and vice president of social and emerging media at Olson Public Relations.

For her, solitude might be simply sitting home and watching a few episodes of TV.

“I might tweet while I watch it, but it’s a perfectly acceptable way to spend an afternoon,” she said.

Is that really solitude, though?

Duke’s Ms. Davidson thinks it is.

“For some people, it’s dancing and blasting rock music,” she said. “We tend to think of it as solitude, which is sort of a lofty term, when in fact for many people, it’s also about being joyful.

“The real issue is fun versus work.”

Often, she said, her students are better at it than she is.

“They seem very fine to go off on a bike ride and leave a cellphone,” she said.

Renee Houston, an associate professor of communication studies at Puget Sound University in Washington state, also finds herself envying a colleague who regularly unplugs. “He will drive two hours to go to the coast just to step away, just have time to think,” she said.

She’s not there yet but is finding small ways to set limits. Her family has a rule, for instance — put cellphones away during dinner unless there’s a crisis.

She, too, has noticed more after-hours tech limits in the business world. But it can be difficult to set those limits with close colleagues or friends who have come to expect instant responses and get miffed if they don’t get one.

“The friend is saying, ‘But wait! It’s me!’ ” said Mr. Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. “But you have to wonder — what kind of friend are they?”

The key, he and others said, is to develop a reputation for being responsive but not hyperresponsive.