I have never felt a great need to disconnect. At least not from our digital technologies themselves. Definitely from the expectation of being perpetually ‘at work’ that often rides on their back, but not from the networks as such. In other words, I fancy myself to be relatively well adjusted to the great socio-technical revolution of our epoch.
For years now, I have listened to first-hand accounts of the dangers of being overly connected: strangers, acquaintances and friends who either lament their troubled relationship with the internet and its various contributing technologies – email, social media, smartphones, connectedness in general – or who report great benefits to their complexion and psychological health after spending time offline. I believe all these feelings to be plausible and true, even as I am sceptical about the sometimes tacit, often explicit claim that social activities carried out online are inherently less authentic. I agree that what critic Nathan Jurgenson calls ‘the Real-Life fetish’ is predicated on a fallacy, and that our realities are always mediated – be it culturally, socially, technologically or a combination of these spheres. And I figure that, armed with an awareness of these enmeshings, one ought to avoid falling prey to what others regard as a form of affliction or addiction.
It gave me pause, then, when one of my favourite media critics, Evgeny Morozov, spoke about the extraordinary measures he employs to resist going online. First, he explained, he bought himself a laptop with a removable wi-fi card, so he could work at café or library without being able to access the internet. At home, however, he required a more elaborate system. He procured a safe with a timed lock – ‘it is basically the most useful artefact in my life’ – in which to keep his phone, his router and presumably the aforementioned wi-fi card before sitting down to a day or weekend of reading and writing. But because the safe could still be opened by accessing a panel secured with screws, he had to place all his screwdrivers in the safe as well, so that nothing short of a car trip to the nearest hardware store could restore his internet access.
My first reaction when reading this story was Oh my god, maybe I should be doing these things, too. I am addicted and I don’t even know it. After calming down, I wondered whether the internet really constitutes a distraction of a higher order than all the others, the irresistible lure that requires Odysseus to be tied to the mast of his ship. After all, even if you took away my internet connection, I would still have my family, a television set, hundreds of books, a backyard, the dog. I am also old enough to remember studying for exams before the World Wide Web went mainstream, and swearing to myself that I would return to the set texts after just one more game of Tetris – ‘No, wait. I got four T-pieces in a row so this round doesn’t count.’
Then I thought about it some more and realised that, even though I don’t usually bother to switch off the wi-fi altogether, over the years I have developed strategies for dimming it, or making the connection less wieldy. The main one consists of uploading digital articles and web pages to my ereader, which is my preferred device for reading online texts of more than two or three paragraphs. I didn’t expect this when I bought the device, four or five years ago, after some resistance. I value the fact that books are physical objects, and that we need to make room for them and select which ones we are going to keep – a fact that helps create a space for reading. As it turns out, besides helping me save on the eye-watering costs of shipping books from Italy (the primary reason for the purchase), my ereader is a marvellous tool for making digital texts less digital. For stripping them of links and removing them from the machine that connects them effortlessly with every other text in existence – this utterly miraculous culture-enhancing feature that can cause accomplished, thoughtful writers to hide their screwdrivers.
If I am at home, my version of Morozov’s time-combination safe is a comfortable chair by the window of my office. If I am feeling too twitchy to read or write at my desk, that is where I go – apparently I am so lazy that those few steps away from my computer are all it takes. But I am becoming more comfortable with the notion that we all need these strategies, to varying degrees, in order to cope with what, in our most melodramatic moments, we just call the technology. That there are times when we all need to create some attrition, to throw a fistful of sand in the gears of the great machine.
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