Could you quit the internet?
In order to write his web-sceptical book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr had to disconnect. In order to write a book about how the internet might be damaging our thought processes and ways of interacting with information, Carr found that he simply had to give up the web altogether. In fact, he moved house. He actively sought out isolation in direct contrast to the status quo his life had become, an erratic and endless journey along the information super-highway. He needed to slow down, think a bit, and write.
Carr talks about the beneficial consequences of cutting himself off from his internet connection within the book, before mentioning that he returned to the web as soon as his work was substantially complete. "I have to confess: it's cool," he says of new web services like Netflix, "I'm not sure I could live without it." Could you? Why would you?
Last year there were two high-profile instances of internet abstinence. One was the publication of journalist Susan Maushart's book, The Winter of our Disconnect. (Extract here and Guardian article here). The second was James Sturm's online column for Slate.com which recorded his four-month-long withdrawal from the web.
Sturm's column series provides truly fascinating insights into just how fundamental the internet has become to working and creative people's lives. Suddenly, to disconnect from all of that supplementary online activity and interaction, is a surprisingly drastic move. In his third column, Sturm related the comments of many sympathising web-users who had taken the time to write to him by snail-mail and comment on the fact that they too felt that the internet had come to wield a disruptive and intrusive influence on their lives, ultimately meaning more bad than good for their mental well-being.
So why quit, exactly? Abstinence is not an abstract ideal. If you decide to give something up, there are very specific and subjective reasons for why you would make that decision. Just have a look at this wildly varied Guardian discussion on vegetarianism, for example. After a heady amount of Google searching, I have determined that the five most common reasons for making a complete break from the internet (however long it lasts) are as follows, ranked roughly according to commonality, most to least common:
- Exhaustion at information-overload
- Feeling that one is neglecting one's real-world social life
- Concerns that families are fragmented away from each other, towards technology
- Feeling that one's general creativity has suffered
- Disgruntlement with online 'communities' (See this blog for a good example)
What's interesting to me is that almost none of the abstentions I found had actually continued indefinitely - most had dialled back into the machine after a few weeks or months. A friend who recently quit Facebook and sent all of her contacts a message which said, "I was never really a fan of the idea of virtual socialising, so I'm calling it a day. Before joining [Facebook] a year ago, I saw people in person more often." Six month's later, and the same friend is back on Facebook, requesting that I 'friend' her. It reminds me of that Simpson's episode where Itchy and Scratchy get pulled off air and, for a brief few weeks, the children of Springfield re-discover the great outdoors in a haze of idyllic childhood wonderment and play. Of course, when Itchy and Scratchy return to TV screens, the children drop their kites and butterfly nets and rush back to their old habits. Mankind is very good at extremes, finding a balance is what's hard.
Interestingly, there were far fewer articles and blogs about people who try to find a happy medium, reducing their internet usage to an acceptable level without actually giving it up entirely. Well, abstinence probably has more news value, but there are ways of controlling one's connection to the internet. Here are ten top tips, for example. The problem is that the majority of people who feel concerned about their connection - in the fullest sense - to the web, have no overpowering urge to really do anything about it, despite nagging feelings of dissatisfaction. Abstinence from the internet, perhaps shockingly, has become as drastic a step as abstinence from, say, all forms of fossil-fuelled transport - but that reality has happened within less than twenty years. Vegetarianism, as a difficult lifestyle choice, suddenly pales in comparison. The internet is more ubiquitous than meat.
My personal view is that the problem seems like a big problem only because of the admittedly unprecedented speed with which the internet has permeated our social and working lives. We're still unnerved by its presence and its power. I hope that we will be able to control our interaction with it, even though many signs suggest that it is too addictive, and too deep, to climb out of simply when we want. Surely it is not necessary to abstain. Surely we can find a middle-ground where we feel connected but in control. More should be said about how that can be achieved, and less blame should be passed to the machine for 'making us all like zombies'. We still exert free will; don't we still have the choice of switching off whenever we want? I truly think that the next big hurdle mankind faces, in determining whether he and she constitute a truly intelligent species, is in proving that we can make that decision when we need to, that we can assert our dominance over technology, rather than always allowing it to determine what we do. Because technology always re-configures our experience of the world, indeed of ourselves, so the internet presents the greatest challenge yet. Did anyone ever decide to give up the wheel? Or the pen? Maybe, but it's unlikely. That more and more people feel that it might be worth giving up on the internet is a telling sign that this particular technology is worth keeping at arm's length.
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