January 2010

Rachel Cohn

Listening to the silence
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Imagine spending a week totally unplugged: no iPod, no Facebook, no e-mail or voicemail or text messages. It may sound impossible, but that’s exactly what popular author Rachel Cohn (co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) did, and she lived to tell the tale. Cohn’s “technology detox” taught her a lot about just how reliant we’ve all become on the technology in our lives, not only for information but also for connection. “What I learned is that it’s very lonely,” Cohn says. “We’ve gotten so used to having that phone in our hands and having all that information at our disposal, but all of a sudden you feel so isolated.”

Cohn, a self-confessed couch potato, tackled her technology detox as a way to understand the heroine of her newest novel, Very LeFreak. Veronica (known as Very) is a first-year student at Columbia. She sleeps cuddled with her laptop across her chest and her iPhone in her pocket so that she’ll never miss a phone call, text message or e-mail. The major accomplishment of her freshman year is creating The Grid, a social networking site for her dorm, but when the flash mobs and parties organized on The Grid start getting out of control, Very’s previously promising future at Columbia is suddenly in doubt. Meanwhile, Very’s got some pretty big issues in her past that she’s never really acknowledged. If she turns off all the noise that surrounds her, she might have no choice but to really listen to her own heart.

At least that’s what Very’s friends and family hope when they drag her, kicking and screaming, to ESCAPE (Emergency Services for Computer-Addicted Persons Everywhere), a treatment center in the wilds of Vermont, which seems a million miles away from New York and from the technology she’s had to leave behind. And ESCAPE is no mere flight of fancy, as Cohn explains, noting that there is a technology addiction treatment center called ReSTART in Washington state. “This is being looked at as a real addiction now,” she says, “in the same way we talk about drug addiction or alcoholism.”

Very’s time at ESCAPE might prompt her to deal with the past—and perhaps to open herself up to love. But how does Cohn characterize her own complicated relationship with technology? The author, whose writing is well known for including musical references, used to listen to music—loudly—whenever she was writing. “I don’t anymore, oddly,” she remarks. “As I’m aging, I can’t stand all the noise. Once I get past the opening sections of a novel, into my comfort zone, though, then music is on in the background.” For Cohn, who listens to the Berkeley, California, university radio station, the absence of KALX was one of the starkest silences during her break from technology: “The DJs feel like family in a lot of ways, and not having them here felt wrong, too quiet.”

Now that Cohn’s plugged back in, she’s grown more appreciative—and more thoughtful—about the role of technology in our lives. Readers, too, might be inspired to view technology differently after reading Very’s outrageous but thought-provoking story. “Go online for a specific reason, because otherwise it’s just a gigantic waste of time,” advises Cohn. “Limit it. Go out and live at the same time.”

Norah Piehl writes from Brookline, Massachusetts. For her interview with Rachel Cohn, she tried out a new piece of technology—a headset for her cell phone.

Get the Book

Very LeFreak

Very LeFreak

By Rachel Cohn
ISBN 9780375857584

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