Have I Learned Anything by Being Offline?

When this project began four months ago, I had no idea that my difficulties with the connected life were so common. In the last month alone, I’ve heard several authors on the radio talking about books that address our growing reliance on the Web. Nicholas Carr ( The Shallows) explores “the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences.” William Powers ( Hamlet’s Blackberry) offers his readers a “practical philosophy for building a good life in the digital age.” Both books quote poets and philosophers, examine how society has dealt with new technologies in the past, and paint a dire (but not hopeless) picture of the future.

These well-researched and measured books are only the beginning. I expect we’re not far from more nakedly opportunistic fare—Suzanne Somers’ Internet-Free, and Loving It! or Anthony Robbins’ Personal Power Offline and in Life! * A mega-church pastor will write Disconnecting the Devil and Plugging Into Jesus.

I confess that I considered jumping on the book-writing bandwagon. But when I started putting together a proposal based on this project, I immediately ran into problems. The obvious topic of the book would be the lessons I learned during my four-month Internet hiatus. But when I tried to write a sample chapter, I was totally stumped. Surely I learned something?

I found it much easier to identify the benefits of my Web-free interlude than to draw lessons from it. For starters, I feel a certain amount of pride in having completed my goal—I feel like a first-time marathon runner who is about to cross the finish line. I also feel less shell-shocked than I did four months ago. I’ve been less distracted when I’m with my kids. I’m a little less self-conscious. I’ve had something interesting to talk about at social events. But this isn’t even enough material for a column, let alone a book.

Perhaps I need to approach the book idea from a different angle. Reinvigorated from my Internet fast, why not help others try to disconnect themselves? Judging from the hundreds of letters I’ve received, there are plenty of people out there who need a break. I realize that four months may not be feasible for most people but what about a month? The 30-Day Internet Diet! Practical tips for surviving and thriving on an Internet fast!

This seemed like a great idea for about a week. Then it hit me: I don’t know any of you. As I considered all the various responsibilities and jobs that demand connectivity, and all the different ways the Internet is entwined in people’s lives, it seemed absurd (if not downright insulting) to offer any type of prescriptive advice.

And even if a few of you could disconnect for 30 days, then what? It’s only a finger in the proverbial dike. One month might be a futile effort—how long until you’re back in front of the computer, incessantly updating your Facebook page? When dealing with something as powerful as the Internet, perhaps a more extreme measure is needed, a manifesto along the lines of Jerry Mander’s 1978 classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.

I’m not hard-core enough to write a book that advocates living entirely without the Internet, but I do find taking such a forceful position appealing. At least I can design the book’s cover.

Book prospects aside, I am disappointed in my final days before returning online. I had secretly hoped to be transformed by these last four months. I wanted to become a new person—someone with my hand firmly on the rudder of my destiny, fearless as I re-enter the Internet’s treacherous waters. Instead I feel like I’m returning from an awesome vacation, and now I have to just suck it up and get back to work.

I really did want to learn at least one lesson, something to ensure the positive effects of my Internet fast linger. Before writing this post, I reread my first column and was struck by how much shame I was feeling at my compulsive online activity. I’m not looking forward to reliving that feeling every day.

Lately I’ve been keenly aware of the amount of advertising that insists connective technology is essential to our happiness (Faster speeds! Fewer dropped calls!). Four months ago, I barely noticed it; now it is an affront, a lie so obvious that it’s insulting. Adding to my anger is the fact that until the Web came around, I’d successfully avoided the addiction gauntlet. I’d steered clear of any trouble with gambling, booze, drugs, and porn. To be blindsided by the Internet (my helpful and wonderful friend!) doesn’t seem fair. But complaining is useless, isn’t it?

Whether I’ll eventually accept the Internet as just another unavoidable fact of modern living or as a disease I have to learn to live with is still unclear. I hope we can kiss and make up after our separation, but it won’t be easy. I’m not the naïve person I was when we first got together.

I intended to have this penultimate column be some type of summation of my experience but any lasting lessons remain elusive. For now I’ll just take stock of the fact that for four months I took deliberate steps to examine a problematic aspect of my life and documenting the experience made me pay closer attention to it. As a result my life has felt richer. Maybe that qualifies as a lesson learned.

Next column: The first days back online!

Thanks again for all the great mail that was sent along during the last four months. I wish I could have written back to everyone. Your letters were better than any e-mail I could have possibly received. Here’s a few of the more visually inspired pieces I received. These next three images are excerpted from a longer comic by my friend and Adventures in Cartooning collaborator Alexis Frederick-Frost.

I received the following card/poem/collage from San Francisco artist Alice So. This scan does not do this wonderful piece justice—it really captured the intent (and at times the feel) of my four-month hiatus. Even the envelope the art was mailed in was terrific.

Correction, July 28, 2010: This article originally misspelled Suzanne Somers’ name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)