'Disconnected' shows students' lives without computers

The cover of the 'Disconnected' DVD shows Chel, Andrew and Caitlin wrestling with a typewriter during their time off-line.
Image courtesy Melody Gilbert

"Disconnected" came about as part of a class assignment.

Eight students in the Cinema and Media Studies department at Carleton College in Northfield were to plan, shoot, and produce a documentary.

Some of the students editing "Disconnected"
Image courtesy Melody Gilbert

The first challenge was to come up with a subject.

"We were looking for something that seemed sensational," said Caitlin Magnusson.

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Magnusson was one of the students pitching ideas.

"To us the most extreme thing we could think of which wasn't life threatening, was to go without a computer," she said. Right at this moment you're probably experiencing one of two reactions. Many people are rolling their eyes. But a significant number, likely a little younger, are agreeing with Caitlin.

For many young people the laptop has become a vital extra limb. This is especially true in college where most activities beyond personal hygiene have migrated to the web.

"To us the most extreme thing we could think of, which wasn't life-threatening, was to go without a computer."

No computers meant: no e-mail, no online research, no social networking sites. Magnusson, Chel Lundin -- who'd actually made the suggestion -- and Andrew Tatge volunteered to be the test subjects. Lundin soon ran into a problem he didn't expect.

"A friend gave me a CD," he said. "I went back to my room and I didn't have a CD player. I'd only had my laptop for years."

Life without computers became very complicated. There was the time Tatge went to the Carleton library to find some books, the old fashioned way.

"Do you have a card catalog?" he asks the librarian.

"No, it's all online," she replies. When she suggests he go to the terminal and print up what he needs, he tells her why he can't.

"We are doing this project where me and two other students aren't using computers for three weeks," he says.

"Seriously?" she says.

In best librarian fashion she was by now peering over the top of her glasses.

Test subjects
Chel Lundin, Caitlin Magnusson and Andrew Tatge all reacted differently to being without their computers. They also had different definitions of what was "cheating" during their computerless time.
Image courtesy Melody Gilbert

Meanwhile, Chel was having communications problems. As well as not using e-mail he had also sworn off texting. He'd leave phone messages and it was taking days for people to reply.

"It's driving me nuts, I'll tell you that right now," he says in the film.

And then there was the typewriter. Having been told they would be marked down for handing in handwritten papers, they had to learn how to use a typewriter. Melody Gilbert who was teaching the documentary class says it got kind of ugly.

"When people see them trying learn how to use a typewriter, it is hysterical," she said. "They don't know how to use a typewriter. They really don't."

Gradually though they found some advantages. Caitlin had been the biggest computer user of the group. Yet after she had wrapped and duct-taped her laptop, she found its absence only a minor inconvenience.

Melody Gilbert
Film maker Melody Gilbert has made films on weddings at the Mall of America ("Married at the Mall,") able-bodied people who believe they should be amputees, ("Whole") and the trials of a family with a daughter who has no sense of pain, ("A life without pain.") She has made a film on urban exploration and on the life of Walter Mondale
Image courtesy Frozen Feet Films

"But at the same, I am finding myself spending more time on things I should have been doing," she says in the film. "Like homework. And I've actually been spending more time just thinking, which is kind of unusual.

After a month of shooting the group took a couple more months to edit the film, and then sent it off on the festival circuit. Now, a year later it will air on Twin Cities Public Television at 10:30 on Sunday night.

Lundin has graduated now and is working as a project manager at a electronic health records software company in Madison Wisconsin. He says the month without a computer was stressful, but it has helped him.

"I'm much bigger on talking to people face to face and calling people on the phone instead of relying on e-mail so much," he says. Melody Gilbert who acted as the executive producer on the film says she noticed while reactions to the film differ depending on age, it does tend to start conversations.

"We don't really know what is going to happen with technology and how it is going to effect our lives and whether we should or shouldn't be embracing it as much as we are," she says. "Maybe we don't have a choice." But we can step back and think about it she says, and that's what she really likes about "Disconnected."