Monday May 2, 2011

STOCKBRIDGE

Time travel back to the past. Usually the domain of science fiction, but not for Monument Mountain Regional High School junior Wilson "Wil" Flower.

As his winter independent study project, Flower -- suffering from electronic-gadget overload -- decided to partially replicate life around 1900, a two-month journey to a less-cluttered era.

"My first idea was to go live out in the woods for a week," Flower explained during a conversation in the living room of the Stockbridge home he shares with his parents, Robert and Laurie. "But my mom wasn't too happy with that one." It was in the bleak mid-winter, and there were safety issues to consider.

"So, I just decided I was going to cut down on technology all together," the 16-year-old said. His mom was enthused over that idea, and so was his high school guidance counselor, Michael Powell.

As Laurie Flower described the project, "It was more of an idea of getting off the grid, not using anything that hadn't been invented by 1900." A landline phone, radio and car were permitted.

"Initially, none of my friends thought I'd be able to do it," said Wil. "But they were actually really supportive. When I'd go over to their house, they'd turn off the TV."

Playing chess and reading for pleasure -- "something I wasn't used to at all" -- became mainstays; he was especially enthralled by Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions."

His teachers supported handwritten homework essays based on school-library research rather than Google or Wikipedia.

The initial adjustment was especially challenging for Flower, a self-described Internet addict "on the computer all the time, texting, watching TV. Going from eight hours a day to nothing, that was drastic. I didn't know what to do."

It took him about a week to make the transition away from going online after school to play video games and text his friends until well after midnight. Laurie Flower described how her son has been surrounded by computers his entire life, since both his parents had home offices.

"His friends felt uncomfortable having to go through an adult to talk to him," she remembered, since phone communication was limited to the house landline. "That was awkward."

"I had to actually make the effort to do something," said Wil. "It's so different from just going on the Internet."

What was most difficult about his project? "Overcoming boredom, trying to find things to do that would entertain me," he said. He missed his cellphone the most "because it's so hard to talk to people when you don't have it. I'm a big talker, I talk to my friends a lot."

But he did continue driving to school, pointing out that in 1900, the first rudimentary cars had just been invented. "We didn't use a horse-drawn carriage," Laurie confessed.

Freed of intrusions and "dumb things that distracted me on the computer," Wil slept 10 hours a night, instead of his standard five or six.

"It made a huge difference in his health and mental status," his mom chimed in.

Once the project concluded on April 1, he found it "weird at first" to cycle back into the modern era. "I would get home from school, sit on the couch, and I would forget I could just go on the computer," said Wilson.

He said his grades improved during the project -- "I'm trying to continue to keep them up, trying to stay away from distractions."

Wilson thinks he could disconnect himself from the grid more easily, if he had to, and he's convinced that he has shaken off "parts of technology that can be really badly addictive, like watching YouTube videos -- the technology you don't need" in contrast to helpful aspects such as the ability to call 911 in emergencies and doing research for school.

Now, his mantra is "all things in moderation" -- and that means plenty of time for reading, chess-playing and 7 to 8 hours of sleep. No Facebook during homework time, and no more gaming -- the PlayStation is abandoned.