Blogging from the meat world
A local Internet addict logs off computers for a month. E-mail pile-ups, Web withdrawals, extra housework—his wife’s happier than ever, but will he live to browse again?
It began in a familiar posture: slumped in a creaky office chair, chin in my left hand, right hand manipulating a mouse, eyes glued to a glowing screen.
I was reading Aaron Swartz’s blog. Swartz is a wunderkind of the Internet. We have him to thank for inventing RSS at age 13. He also co-founded www.reddit.com before he was old enough to buy beer. That makes him inadvertently responsible for the rise of Lolcats, but you can’t really lay that on him. No more than you can blame printing-press inventor Johannes Gutenberg for all those Dean Koontz novels (“the medium iz teh message, Cheezeburger”).
In his spare time, Swartz writes about the convergence of technology and philosophy. I suppose he’s my hero.
But what was this? Swartz was going to spend the entire month of June totally apart from computers. “I have literally had a computer since birth,” he writes. “I need to take a break. … I’m packing up the laptop and the cable modem and sending them someplace far away. I’m going back to the world of paper and books.” I was immediately smitten with the romance of his pledge, and I wanted to take it, too. But could I live a month without the Internet?June 1, 2009
I have spent an average of two to three hours per day on the Internet for the last decade. Like so many, I began blogging after 9/11. It was a strategy for staying sane that morphed into an intensive hobby, then a full-blown lifestyle. On my various blogs, I have posted thousands of political diatribes and links, hundreds of personal confessions, and at least four-dozen photos of my dog. In other words, I am not much different than the average Twitter or Facebook user, except I seem to have more invested in the activity than others.
My blog is a major component of my identity. The authorial voice of my blog is assertive, witty and rhetorical. In real life, in what Internet dorks call the “meat world,” I mumble sentences and walk around with my head bowed. I prefer people’s first impressions of me to be Web-based.
But the Internet is also just nasty habit. It is the perfect narcotic for nonsmokers with uneventful jobs—or no job—which is to say almost everybody these days. I’m starting to feel the withdrawal symptoms: the fidgets, the ennui. I need to point and click something. I’m almost too embarrassed to admit it, but my hands are shaking.June 2, 2009
I shaved my head bald. It was an accident. I went crazy with the detailer while giving myself a haircut. As a joke, I tell everyone at work I’m “rebooting” my hairstyle, but they seem to think my lack of hair has something to do with the project.
A co-worker says, “You’re really taking this cyber-Lent thing seriously.” Cyber Lent?
Later, my stepdaughter asks me why I’m going cyber sober. Honestly, I don’t see this project leading to self-improvement, much less sanctitude. At best, I’m hoping it will generate some light comedy.June 4, 2009
I’m making myself get out more. It would be pointless to just replace the Internet with books and TV. The meat world beckons.
I’ve come to a house party in Land Park, thrown by a group of high-school teachers to celebrate the end of the term. There is a keg of beer.
I’m trying not to think about the Internet, but I can’t help noticing that social networking is exactly the same offline as it is online. People with no friends congregate around people with many friends in the hope that their friend base will grow, which in turn will bring them even more friends. Online, people send “friend requests.” Offline, people laugh at jokes, even if they aren’t funny.
The teachers and I are in the backyard. We’re sitting in a big circle, due to all the English teachers present. It’s night. The two least sober teachers are taking turns listing the has-been TV stars they would like to tutor in the ways of love. Their talk gets profoundly nasty, and suddenly I remember that when I was a kid I had a very secret thing for Mrs. C. from the TV show Happy Days. I want to share this amusing, if not creepy, fact, but no one has “friended” me in a while. When I speak, nobody listens.
To repeat: online, offline—not much difference between them as far as I can tell.
On the other hand, it’s not often one sees a math teacher so drunk she has to crawl on her hands and knees to get to the bathroom. Not even on YouTube.June 8, 2009
One week done, still alive. Sometimes I catch myself gazing, misty-eyed, over the shoulders of people I see Web surfing, but my mouse jones has diminished a lot.
There are gaps in my day where the Internet once was. Today I did extra housework to fill some of them. My wife said, “I love my no-Internet husband.”June 12, 2009
My wife, friends Lois and Sarah, and I go swing dancing at the Eastern Star Ballroom in Midtown. I’m watching Lois and my wife dance. Lois is a much better lead than me. My wife looks happy to be here. It’s been a long time since we’ve been out together on a Friday night.
Normally, it would never occur to me to take my wife swing dancing. Swing dancing is for people who like crowds, crave to touch others and be touched by them. I’m an introverted, beer-bellied, bookish man. I don’t talk to my neighbors and never initiate conversations with people I don’t know. All my life, people have described me as quiet.
Yet I’m almost enjoying myself tonight. In fact, I’ve been hungry for other people since my second day offline. I can’t get enough chitchat and how-de-dos. It occurs to me that the Internet has been the bread and butter of my social life in the last few years. I spend more time with my friends “the blogs” than my friends “the humans.” I know the reason why.
Social life in the meat world is not easy for people like me. We are like the clumsy lead in the intricate tango of manners and intimacy. In conversations, we seem to always land on the wrong beat.
Just the other day, for instance, I discovered a co-worker looking at Holocaust photos on the Internet. We started talking about them, then I said, “With the technology we have today, just think of the Holocausts we could have. They’d be like 10 times as bad!” For reasons I do not understand, there was a definite lilt of excitement and relish in my voice. My horrified co-worker only said, “Well, I hope we don’t.”
The Internet, by contrast, allows me to revise and extend my remarks. I would never make the Holocaust gaffe on my blog. Or if I did, it would be done purposefully, in order to highlight some irony.
The Internet makes me more of a wallflower, no doubt. But a wallflower with a laptop is somewhat different from a wallflower without one.
“Should I spin myself?” says Lois. It is my turn to dance with her, and my stiff, repetitive steps are probably getting tedious.
“Sure,” I say.June 17, 2009
I have begun to enjoy my Internet-free days, and I’m planning on taking occasional holidays away from the Web in the future.
But I emphatically do not want this project to become a plea for moderation. Moderation is the favorite buzzword of people who want to accrue all the benefits of being dead without paying any of the costs of actually dying.June 26, 2009
The worst thing about no Internet is that I can’t use Google Maps. The second worst thing is that people still ask me to help them with their computers. I have to do it remotely, like a telephone tech-support guy. “Is your computer plugged in? OK, plug in your computer. Did you do that? Does that solve your problem?”
The best thing about it? I’m no longer wasting my time reading the Boner Party blog. If I want a boner party, I’ll have one myself.
Which leads me to a short remark about Internet porn: It’s redundant and unnecessary. Think about it, fellow masturbators.June 30, 2009
I’ve been back online for two days now, but not full-bore. I spent less than an hour in front of the computer yesterday, and today about twice that. I’m easing in slowly.
I miss missing the Internet. Without it, I felt calmer, less anxious, more motivated. I slept better. My family and friends were happier with me.
But however good it was to be away, I can’t give up the Internet permanently. I can’t kill my Web browser as some have killed their TVs. It’s too powerful a tool. It’s more powerful than radio, cinema and TV combined, maybe even more revolutionary than print media. We’ll have to wait and see what it brings the world after it kills off all the newspapers and magazines.
I suppose I should end by answering the question I know is on everyone’s mind: Was this project good for my soul? Yes, but not in the sense most people would assume. I just don’t believe in miracles and redemptions. I think at best we get one of each. Our birth is our miracle. Death redeems us of our life, like the final payment of a long mortgage. Everything in between is merely a mess of chaos and contingency.
Yet the scene does change now and then. And this project has been a wonderful change of scenery. I’m certain I will look back fondly on my month of cyber sobriety for years to come.