Is It Cheating if I Listen to a Podcast?

I have now been offline for two weeks. It’s been unusually warm here in Vermont. Today it was in the 80s; already it feels like summer. In two weeks, two seasons have passed: mud season and spring. I’m not sure if I am more disoriented by the weather or my absence from the Internet.

Up until the moment I disconnected, I was on a serious online bender. College basketball’s March Madness intensified my Internet madness. All of this year’s games were streamed live, and I was unable to tear myself away from my laptop. I watched hoops constantly the first few days of the tournament, while trying to take care of as much online business as possible before officially signing off. I furiously e-mailed friends and colleagues, planned a summer vacation, and sent photos of my kids to family. I pulled together the material for a book I’m editing about the artist/cartoonist Denys Wortman and prepared for the release of my graphic novel, Market Day.

On a Friday afternoon I met with Michelle, a tech-savvy colleague who had agreed to help me disable my computer’s connection to the Web. She also helped me set up an automated e-mail response that will let people know the dates I’ll be offline (through the middle of June) and inform them that their e-mail will not be read. The bounce-back includes my cell phone number and encourages anyone who needs to get a hold of me to call.

In my final hour of Internet use, I responded immediately to every incoming e-mail. During my last 15 minutes online, I felt an adrenaline rush as I reconnected with an old friend from graduate school (after 18 years), scheduled meetings with students, nailed down details for a forthcoming lecture by author and illustrator Mo Willems at the Center for Cartoon Studies, and agreed to donate artwork for a fundraiser on behalf of a Burlington-based community health center. I sent a group e-mail to friends and colleagues in New York City inviting them to an event at the Strandbookstore. During all of this, I had the University of Wisconsin game on. My alma mater was in a tight contest and I was bummed I had to disconnect before the outcome was decided. The idea of waiting until the next morning to get the final score from the Valley News seemed unthinkable.

I headed into the first weekend strung out from my binge and ready for a break. As I drove home from the CCS, I was able to get the Wisconsin score on the local sports radio station. The Badgers pulled out a first-round squeaker. This was surely an omen that my four-month Internet fast wouldn’t be as bad as I feared, though two days later a lower-ranked team blew them out. Baylor? Butler? I can’t remember. Can someone Google that for me?

When Monday rolled around, I thought my cell phone would be ringing nonstop. Monday came and went. My cell phone rang once—my wife asking me if I could pick up our daughter from school. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Were people just not going to call? Did the extra effort of picking up a phone discourage contact? I’m an important person! What the hell?

Perhaps my metrics were off. I receive more than 40 e-mails on a typical workday (not counting junk mail and messages on which I was merely copied). Even the most basic exchanges can end up generating three or four e-mails. Someone e-mails you about something, you reply, they reply, etc., etc. E-mail generates more e-mail. How many are really important? Maybe the lack of phone calls means that most of them weren’t. Maybe I’m not an important person.

On Tuesday, I drove to Cambridge for Story 3.0, a workshop hosted by MIT’s Center for Future Storytelling. The workshop promised to “challenge our thinking about how story-based experiences will be crafted and shared in the 21st century.” I had high hopes for it. What better place to see what I’ll be missing by being offline than the epicenter of cutting-edge technology, MIT’s Media Lab? I was looking forward to in-depth lectures and panels by great thinkers on the relationship between narrative and technology and on how tomorrow’s stories will be “more personal, responsive, creative, democratized, and engaging.”

Unfortunately, due to a GPS malfunction, Michelle and I arrived 90 minutes late. (I probably shouldn’t have been using GPS in the first place; more thoughts on this in a moment.) When I arrived, I found a seat in a small but full lecture hall and looked on as a producer proudly showed uninspired animation for a yet-to-be launched Web site based on the Warrior books by Erin Hunter, which feature warring clans of cats. (My 9-year-old loves these.) He explained that he’s hoping Warrior readers will find their way to his Web site and pay for content. Warrior cat-man was followed by representatives from Domino’s Pizza and Hasbro Toys. Both companies, we learned, were struggling until they harnessed the power of the Web to reinvent themselves. Sales of pizza and toys skyrocketed. Everyone was happy.

I was bored out of mind. Throughout the day a stream of jargon justified technology’s role in the future of storytelling. (The pioneers of storytelling, I was told, understood the “context of social consumption,” creating a “drillable storyverse for fans to explore.”) I ditched the conference and headed back to White River Junction with more resolve than ever to reinvent myself without the Internet.

I’ve been asked this question repeatedly. People think the whole thing is a bit fishy. I am still using my computer to type; I’m just not connected to the Web. And I do have a student, Pat, who is helping me with this column. I dump my Word document and drawings (which have been scanned) onto his thumb drive, and he sends it along to my editor, who faxes me back edited copy to discuss. “Isn’t that cheating?” I’m asked. “Pat is my shabbos goy,” I reply.

But cutting myself off from the Internet hasn’t been easy, and deciding what is and isn’t in the spirit of this project has required some rather Talmudic parsing. The Web had burrowed deeper into my domestic life than I’d realized. Some things I don’t worry about, like when my wife is cooking and listening to a podcast or Pandora. I’m not going to put in earplugs or leave the room or demand that she turn off what she’s listening to. Our Roku box, a device that connects our television to the Web so we can stream movies from Netflix presents a trickier conundrum. Here’s how I handle it: I don’t go online to manage our Netflix queue, but I am more than happy to watch an episode of 30 Rock if Rachel has already turned it on. Though I know full well she is probably streaming the content from the Web, it’s possible that it’s actually a DVD. I am willfully ignorant; it’s my own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

One benefit of being offline so far is that I am drawing a lot more than I was before. I knew committing to do this column would force me to produce, but I am heartened by how seamlessly my time spent connected to the Internet has become time spent drawing. In the last two weeks, I’ve already filled up a 40-page 4”x6” photo album (I purchase these in 99-cent stores) with watercolor paintings. This work seems to foster patience (I literally have to wait for the paint to dry), whereas on the Web, I was a hyperactive child with zero attention span.

What are these paintings about? Hard to say. Maybe the robot represents technology? Maybe the elephant represents memory? I have no idea what the rabbi is about. Jewish identity? Maybe this series of drawings will lead somewhere productive and maybe not. Either way, at least I have something to show for countless hours of compulsive behavior.

To see all the drawings I’ve been doing since going offline, click here—Pat’s uploaded them onto a Flickr page for me.

P.S.: I’ve just received the first wave of letters from readers. Real letters! Written by hand! Wow. I will respond soon and will start incorporating your thoughts into the next column. Do keep writing, since I can’t read your comments otherwise:

The Center for Cartoon Studies
Attn: James Sturm
P.O. Box 125
White River Junction, VT 05001