If Susan Maushart’s book The Winter Of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (And A Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled The Plug On Their Technology And Lived To Tell The Tale hasn’t been made into a movie within a year or two, it’s proof that everyone in Hollywood is asleep at the switch. It’s the perfect cinema-ready blend of zeitgeist-tapping story and heartwarming uplift piece. It’s infinitely relatable for anyone who owns more than three portable electronic devices. It’s full of wry-but-Middle-America-friendly comic moments, and it comes with a built-in moral. Given all that, it’s also pat and predictable, a by-the-numbers mash-up of the lifestyle-experiment book genre (see also The Year Of Living Biblically, Julie & Julia, Living Oprah, etc.) and an Erma Bombeck family-humor book. But like so many lifestyle-experiment books, it asks readers to look up from their routines and actually notice their own lives for a moment, and it’s hard to see that as a bad thing.
As the subtitle spells out, Winter Of Our Disconnect documents a six-month period where Perth author/journalist Maushart and her three reluctant, bribed-into-compliance teenagers gave up anything with a screen: cell phones, computers, TVs, gaming systems, mp3 players, and so forth. (Use of school computers or friends’ TVs or games were permitted; technology was just banned from the home and the participants’ personal possession.) The broad results won’t surprise any reader: Maushart and her family members were initially bored and at a loss, but soon started entertaining themselves by coming closer as a family and engaging in time-consuming tasks they’d been too addled and distracted for, like cooking, learning a musical instrument, reading books, and simply having long, intimate conversations with each other.
What makes Winter absorbing isn’t that family-film-ready arc, but Maushart’s diverse, lively take on documenting it. She sometimes gets lazy, relying on Bridget Jones-style clipped diary entries (“Taking many walks, despite heat. V. strange without iPod.”), and sometimes gets a little too expansive, repeating herself in broad circles, overusing only-semi-ironic slang like “LOL,” and gushing far too often about her inspiration, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. But mostly, she tells compelling anecdotes about individual milestones and discoveries, then researches them in detail, assembling relevant, eye-opening scientific studies and pundit opinions: When her 14-year-old spends months catching up on sleep after the tech ban begins, Maushart discusses links between electronic screens and disruption in teenagers’ hormones and sleep cycles. Her kids’ protests that they need their laptops to do homework prompts pages on modern use of electronic devices in school and at home, with plenty of citations and thoughts pro and con.
She also takes the time to explore, with a tech addict’s mordant humor, how rapidly and completely our use of technology has changed, and how deprived people feel when briefly setting aside devices that have often only been available for a few years. And she brings out both the entertainment value and the authentic surprise in the things she learned along the way: For instance, without cell phones, her family finds they can’t play meetings by ear, and they become better at planning. Their attention spans and ability to focus change radically. And the experiment gets her thinking at length about child-rearing tactics, and how the youth-oriented paradigm has affected everything it touches.
In the end, The Winter Of Our Disconnect is more pop entertainment than lifestyle manual or research paper, which is all to the good; Maushart avoids preaching or lecturing, letting readers take away whatever they want from her isolated experience. But she nudges them, with good humor and intriguing science alike, to consider their own tech-ban experiments. Without ever idealizing the screen-free life, she makes it sound like something every family should try, if only to remember what their unplugged brains feel like.