October 1, 2010 10:17 pm

Weaning yourself offline

I like to think of myself as only moderately, ordinarily addicted to the internet. I don’t have an iPhone. I don’t have a BlackBerry. I don’t have an iPad. I am barely involved with Facebook, and can’t stand Twitter. But as I think about sitting down to write my next book, I do wonder what it would be like to have uninterrupted hours of work – long, luxurious stretches of time, unbroken by dipping into the internet, skimming through an article, scanning e-mail, buying groceries. To be working, in other words, like it was 1975. Dylan Thomas once wrote, “The summer talked itself away,” and I am a little bit afraid of having to say, some months from now, “The fall e-mailed itself away.”

Hence my resolve: what if I just spent the time I was supposed to be working and concentrating, working and concentrating? What if I didn’t have the great beguiling luminous territory of the internet to escape to whenever the sentences got a little slow or tricky?

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The semi-revolutionary idea of going offline in a very modest and moderate way seems like a reasonable one. I won’t vanish, dysfunctionally, off the face of the earth; I will just check my e-mail, once a day, for about 15 minutes. I envisage this useful and not entirely radical experiment lasting a week – which is not, after all, a huge, unmanageable eternity.

A man I meet at a party tells me about a software program called “freedom”. It asks you how long you would like to be offline (i.e. free) and you tell it, and then it disables your computer so you can’t get on to the internet for that time – or, in its words: “Freedom locks you away from the internet.” If you should suddenly need to go on the internet, you can restart your computer and disable the program, but it offers that extra bit of resistance; it is the superego, the self-control that you don’t quite have, or in its own slightly Orwellian terms, “Freedom enforces freedom”. And I agree with the man at the party that this seems in many ways exactly what I need, and yet, somehow (and this may be stubborn and unreasonable and unmodern of me), freedom seems like something I should not have to buy and download. (There is also a less intense version of the macfreedom program, called “Anti-Social”, which disables your e-mail but allows you on to the internet. And again, I feel that if I am going to be antisocial, I should be able to do it on my own.)

But the very existence of programs such as these (which outsource discipline and restraint) reveals that these portals, these openings, these trivial little chances to slip into another world are an addiction. They are as powerful and transporting in their own way as a couple of cocktails at the end of the day.

I don’t generally go in for hysterical visions of technology, but when you start to think about it, the ubiquity of screens, the incessant escape from one place into another, the secret passageway of iPhones and BlackBerries, the glazed, ubiquitous expression, I-am-here-but-I-am-not-here, is a little unseemly. Say your train of thought, as you are reading to your baby, goes something like this: “Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. J.Crew summer sale 20% off, can you turn in the piece by Friday? Apologies, xx, should we meet at 6:00 at your place? Goodnight bears. Goodnight chairs.” This moment suddenly seems to contain within it the entire decline and fall of civilisation, or, at the very least, is a little unfair to the baby. Though perhaps he understands. My own baby, for instance, loves screens with such a great consuming passion that he has already torn two computer keys off two different keyboards.

Day 1

At first I am edgy, jittery, like I need something to do with my hands. I guess this is what withdrawal feels like. I remind myself that there is nothing interesting on my e-mail. But the problem is not that I am waiting for a specific e-mail, but rather the feeling of being connected, the cosmic buzz of being available to the world, the open line to anyone; it’s not, in other words, the content that matters, but the state itself. And this is what is alarming to me, because I do sort of harbour the old-fashioned idea that I should occasionally be in the room with the people I am in the room with (or the book, or the piece of work, or the thoughts in my head).

I am basically experiencing the uneasiness of city people in the country, where the quiet, the lack of ambient street noise is unsettling, where they are literally thinking, “Where are the sirens, the couple arguing, the car radio, the truck engine?” All the mundane, trivial noise that you always want to block out is suddenly missing, and the crickets or cicadas or birds are only drawing attention to how unnaturally still it is, and how far away you are from civilisation.

Here is my computer, here is a stack of books piled next to me, here is a cup of coffee, here is the sun streaming into the parlour windows – ideal working conditions, some might say, and yet I haven’t opened a document. It occurs to me that maybe this experiment isn’t excellent for my concentration, as I am concentrating mostly on not going online. And then I think about how easy it is to check your e-mail. Just one click, and no one is looking. I think to myself, no one will know, and it will just be this one time.

I am suddenly desperately, helplessly consumed with the need to order diapers online, and check the front page of the paper, find a map for the restaurant I am going to for dinner, look at the weather for the next 10 days, the hourly weather for today; and then there is the intriguing prospect of e-mail, and then, when I look up, two hours have passed … I see now why one writer I talked to goes upstate, where his coverage is spotty, so he can’t go on the internet. I remember suddenly that I wrote my entire last book in a cubicle in the New York Public Library, without wireless. There may be no hope for me. At the end of the day I pretend to myself that I was not actually cheating. I tell myself that it takes a little longer to get used to the idea than I thought, and that the suddenness of going offline in one day was too ambitious and, ultimately, not constructive.

Day 2

I admit to myself that I am cheating. I am actually like an addict sneaking off to the roof for a cigarette, cheating. After spending a long, guilty stretch checking my e-mail, I go on Facebook. One of my Facebook friends is a stylish and subversive woman who likes to put up pictures of monkeys, with captions like “so much awesomeness” or, about another surrounded by monkeys, “Mr Popular”. She has no children, and is satirising the way other people post pictures of their babies. For a moment, I appreciate the satire, the meta-commentary, and her own ever-stylish relation to ordinariness, and then I am disgusted with myself, with Facebook, and with the awesome monkeys.

Days 3 & 4

It’s the weekend, and so I am not confronted with the computer screen, with the emptiness of my soul, with my total inability to deal with solitude, or with my existential dread, because there are people around all the time.

Day 5

I am not actually cheating today, but things feel sort of flat, sort of barren. It is not that my e-mail is that exciting, but that there is always the possibility that something exciting will arrive, and it is the possibility that is hard to surrender. What am I missing? It’s the highly theoretical connection to everyone under the sun. There is an enforced quality to my work, like I am working, but in a clean, well-lit jail. Actually, this feels less like freedom and more like www.macfreedom.com.

Day 6

I look up at the time and notice that I have been working for hours without remembering the sacrifice of the internet; I am not feeling it beckoning me; I am not feeling restless, or experiencing the nagging sensation: “Where is everybody?” This is more like an almost drugged calm, like I imagine some people feel after yoga. The hours go by and I don’t miss the newspaper, or the world, or the invitation to a party. I am working. Finally: uninterrupted.

Day 7

I feel the reclusive, perfect, pleasurable peace I imagine in someone who has gone to an ashram by the Ganges. If Virginia Woolf were alive in this century, she might have added that to truly concentrate you need £500 and a room of your own, without wireless. I am alone with my thoughts, and somehow don’t feel alone with my thoughts. I don’t miss the hum of connectedness. But then, of course, at the end of the day, the gold light in the maple outside my window, I do think to myself that it has been a week, and there’s no need to be obsessive, or overly dramatic, or excessively misanthropic, and just one click won’t hurt …

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages’ (Dial Press).

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