I’d been mulling an internet detox for some time. I didn’t think it would be this week.
Over the past few years, I’ve made a deliberate effort to develop hobbies that don’t involve digital technology. All of my professional life is centred around technology — the internet for research, word processors for writing, email for communication with colleagues, social media for arguing and keeping on top of the news. I’ve found true enjoyment in leisure activities that make no (or little) use of digital tools.
I’m not a purist about it — one of the hobbies I’ve picked up is astronomy, but I’ll use an app on my phone to help me find and identify celestial objects. Another new hobby is smoking meats and fish, and I’ve relied on online advice and tutorials to master the basics. A few months ago, I restored my father’s old record player, and likewise, needed the internet to learn the ropes (and order spare parts). So, yes, I admit to not going all the way. But even these partial steps have been refreshing. There is a pleasure in doing things without (too much) help from our ubiquitous digital tools.
But boy, do we miss those tools when they’re suddenly gone.
My wife is a teacher; she went back to work several days ago. Our kids don’t start school until next week, though, so to get them out of the house while she gets her classroom set up, I brought them up to the cottage. High-speed internet finally arrived here four or five years ago. It’s not quite as fast as what you can get in a city, but it’s more than fast enough to handle all my professional and recreational needs. So it’s not a problem for me to be here. I can stay connected and productive.
Until the modem breaks.
It didn’t seem to be a major problem at first. The internet here is delivered via cellphone towers, and they’re vulnerable to bad weather. Much of the weather this week was lousy and I wasn’t surprised that the net was slow and glitchy. But then it went out entirely, despite absolutely perfect summer weather that day. Nothing that I or the telecom company could do would coax it back to life. As the famous future doctor often said, “it’s dead, Jim.” And a replacement was going to take three days to arrive.
It will take more than a bump in the wireless road to truly break these habits
This was annoying, to put it mildly, but I approached it philosophically. I still had my smartphone, and its data plan, so I’d still be able to maintain communications with my wife and my colleagues (that’s how this column was filed, for those wondering). There’s a landline phone in case of actual emergency. And as for recreation for myself and the kids, the cottage is the perfect place to be without the internet — it’s loaded with books and toys and a million options for fun outdoors. The TV still worked and there’s more movies on Blu-ray and DVD than we could watch in a year. So the loss of the internet wasn’t really a hardship.
But it was revealing.
I got my first home internet connection when I was 12. That was a big deal. Five years later, we upgraded from a lousy 56.6k modem to a high-speed cable connection. That was another big deal. Not long after that, wireless internet became a thing — also a game-changer. There have been countless little improvements since then, including mobile internet, but none of these changes has seemed quite as major as those early jumps. They’ve seemed, at least to me, like more modest, incremental improvements.
Perhaps that’s how I came so dependent on them without realizing it. Once I realized I was going to have to make do for a few days only using my smartphone’s data plan, fearful of overage charges, I became much more aware of what I was using the internet for. My wife and I routinely swap photos of things like grocery lists or amusing things the kids get up to. There’s a handful of apps I check regularly — my weather app, for instance. I stay in touch with close friends using messaging programs. I’m constantly asking my phone’s AI assistant questions as I go about the day — sports scores, market updates, measuring conversions for recipes, stuff like that.
None of these things is vital, per se. But they’re all things I’m able to do without any conscious thought because the internet’s wireless presence is something so cheap and constant that I take it entirely for granted. You don’t notice how often you’re using some wireless bandwidth until you have to make choices about what is necessary and what you can do another way.
Which is weird, when you think about it. I was entirely without the internet, in any form, for the first third of my life. The most advanced technology in our house would have been TV and stereo (with the very record player I just restored this year). Ever-present high-bandwidth wireless internet has been a reality in only the most-recent third of my years, and my phone’s AI assistant has been around for only a few of those. It was revealing to me how much of my life was based on something that, until extremely recent memory, simply didn’t exist.
I’d like to say I’ve changed. That this newfound knowledge will make me more grateful or aware of the digital web we’re so reliant on (I’m looking at you specifically, readers who are seeing these words on a screen and not on paper). But in truth, I doubt that’ll happen. These technologies snuck up on us slowly, and we adapted almost everything to them. It will take more than a bump in the wireless road to truly break these habits. If I ever try to break them at all.
• Twitter: mattgurney
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