Computer-free students find life hard without them

6:35 PM, Dec 21, 2007   |    comments
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Caitlin Magnusson's laptop was on the top shelf of her closet, sealed in flowery wrapping paper, covered in duct tape and caged in a box.

But every morning she would wake up in her dorm room and still turn to her desk to reach for it. It had become muscular memory.

Capturing the experience of going without a computer — for Magnusson it was five weeks — is part of a documentary-making course at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. She and two other students who went on the "computer fast" are the documentary subjects; eight others took turns filming. When the documentary is finished, they plan to screen it on campus and submit it to film festivals.

Magnusson, of Renton, Wash., and the rest of the class discovered the intense influence computers have on their lives. Ditching them entirely is impossible, says Mitchell Lundin of Lakeville, Minn., who also went computerless. Giving up e-mail, Internet news and social networking sites, and relying on phones and print newspapers, rapidly became a burden, he says.

About 87% of 18- to 29-year-olds use the Internet, according to a 2007 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies Net use.

Those statistics reflect the perplexed looks and "You're crazy" remarks that Magnusson, 20, Lundin, 22, and Andrew Tatge, 20, got from their peers. Each student set a goal for how long they would go computerless. Lundin went for three weeks. Tatge, of Des Moines, went four.

For Magnusson, the fast was a roller coaster of emotions. At first she was proud, but when she was forced to use a typewriter and skip out on watching YouTube videos with friends, she experienced deep frustration, she says.

Lundin, who had pitched the idea to the class, saw it as a means to sift out the unnecessary. He had used instant messaging since 7th grade but now shuns it as "incredibly distracting."

Tatge is philosophical. "It hasn't changed how I look at things, but it challenged who I am," he says. He filled his free time with campus walks and drawing comics in a journal.

When Lundin went to register for classes in person or when Magnusson had a meltdown the first time she used a typewriter, a cameraman from the class was with them. When the class asked the student body to abstain from computers for 24 hours and met to discuss it, the camera crew was there. The students spent most of this term filming. Next term will be focused on editing and post-production, says Melody Gilbert, their professor and "executive producer."

Schoolwork was especially challenging without a computer, the students found. Lundin says he felt guilty when he asked for special treatment from professors, who expected him to participate in online class discussions and check e-mail for last-minute updates. Tatge says he had to cheat once to complete an assignment for his Chinese class that required the computer. All three missed out on parties and campus events because they could not check Facebook and didn't know what was going on.

Lundin says the class realized that "there is no turning back. The role of computers is steamrolling forward. You can resist it. You can hold off for a little bit. But in the end, it will keep moving forward with or without you."

By Brittany Levine, USA TODAY

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