Life Without The Internet
I am writing this essay at a pizza shop
When friends come to my apartment, they’ll often ask for the WiFi password. Most are baffled by my response:
“I’m really sorry — but I don’t have any WiFi.”
One of my earliest memories with my dad — I was probably five or six years-old — was him loading up disney.com on Netscape Navigator to show me stills from my favourite movies. I was electrified with amazement.
My dad was a tech-obsessed software engineer, so we were one of the first houses in the neighbourhood to have dial-up internet. Years later, we were one of the first to have high-speed broadband too. Trips to disney.com were eventually replaced with MSN conversations, visits to Habbo Hotel, and marathon sessions of video game mayhem on Xbox Live.
While these days, I probably wouldn’t fit the profile of a “tech nerd” (I don’t own many gizmos and, unlike my father, I can’t code), as a child, I was enthralled with the World Wide Web and its eminent vastness. I remember downloading my first MP3 on Kazaa, I remember the magic feeling of opening my first Hotmail account, I remember creating my first website and going on my first binge watches on funnyjunk.com. I remember the social-life-shaking effects of getting my first Webcam, and of creating a Facebook account as a high school freshman.
Somewhere along the line though, I became disenchanted with my old pal, the internet. Today, we see less of each other than ever.
I am inside a pizza shop in Neukölln, a crusty neighbourhood in East Berlin. The proprietor has a nose like an onion bulb and is eyeing me suspiciously now that he knows I can’t speak German. I am asking—clumsily, futilely, Canadianly — for the WiFi password. For one of the first times since childhood, I am internet-barren: no phone with 3G access, no internet-connected apartment to go to.
My pepperoni-slicing compadre eventually figures out what I’m looking for, and hands over the password.
Like an addict in withdrawal (only hours deprived of internet, mind you) I’m reflexively refreshing all of the usual pages: Facebook, Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit, Medium, Gmail. I’m also madly trying to contact my Airbnb host who later, it turns out, isn’t even in the city.
It’s not that I’ve never been without internet before. It’s just never been so hard to find a connection. I got rid of WiFi five years ago when I moved into my first apartment. Browsing the internet required a trip to a coffee shop, the campus library, or an expensive 3G data session (my phone bills were always obscenely high.)
Not having WiFi in your apartment is a pseudo-deterrent, and cuts down on the most insidious forms of online dickying like video games and Netflix. You feel less connected. More apt to pick up a book. You feel alone and bored and alienated from the world and all of its tedious anger. You don’t feel compelled to constantly check your messages and your notifications and your likes and emails and pageviews.
But if you still have a phone there’s always this lingering temptation to turn on your data and see what the world’s been up to.
As if anything that happened in the last 15 minutes could even remotely matter.
The author Jonathan Franzen once quipped that “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” As a semi-literate writer, I can empathize with Franzen’s curmudgeonly frankness.
Writers make a living from being stuck alone with their thoughts — but when we’re constantly hooked into the internet’s unyielding razzmatazz, that almost never happens.
Even pre-internet, distractions were something that writers had to contend with. David Foster Wallace threw out his TV, and had to go to his neighbours’ to watch the news.
Internet addiction is a habit that’s even harder to kick. Franzen (famously) plugged his laptop’s ethernet socket with glue to avoid the temptation to go online. Zadie Smith and Nick Hornby and Dave Eggers and Naomi Klein all use a sophisticated cocktail of hacks and apps to block distracting websites: SelfControl and Freedom and BlockSite.
For those who dare to write outside of the gorgeous medium.com text editor (and who have $500 to spare) you can even buy a Freewrite, a WiFi-connected typewriter that lets you type distraction-free, without any browsers or apps to play with.
This summer, having gone five years without WiFi in my apartment, I took another radical step: I got rid of my phone.
Actually, a friend got rid of it for me. And by friend, I mean thief, who bedazzled me with his sleight of hand and took off with my beloved pocket hotspot.
I made a conscious decision not to buy another. So, for the last few months, I’ve been getting around with an old iPod Touch — good enough to access Tinder when I’m stealing pizza shop WiFi, but not much else.
Not having a phone (nor WiFi) is pretty isolating. All my communication now depends on a mix of infrequently-checked email, Facebook, and Slack messages. If I’m meeting up with somebody, neither of us can call an audible — there’s no way to bail last-minute without standing the other person up.
I feel like a bit of a Luddite. I feel a lot less connected. My friends think I’m either crazy or just very, very odd.
There are late-nights like tonight where I have no option but to hit up the pizza shop to get my WiFi fix. And there are days I have to bend over backwards to accommodate clients, rushing to cafés to make hushed conference calls. But, as annoying as WiFiless life can be, it is still surprisingly possible.
Of course — you’ll probably be oblivious to the latest twitter drama. You will definitely fall behind on your memes. You will suffer the gnawing emptiness of not knowing what your friends are up to.
You’ll also be inconveniencing yourself in all sorts of unimaginable ways: no Wikipedia? no Spotify? no Google Maps? no Transit? no Uber?!?
Giving up an internet connection disqualifies you from many of modernity’s perks. However, I rarely questioned what those perks were actually costing me — and not just the monthly internet bill. For all of the minutes saved with technology, I was sacrificing hours of my attention, guzzled up by apps hellbent on dazzling me with vacuous content.
I’m not saying that abstinence is the right solution to internet addiction. It’s a pretty drastic measure. But after five years — and thousands of online hours recovered — I think offline life might be the answer for this weak-willed son of a gun. Clearheadedness comes at a price. My apologies if I’m slow to answer your emails.
More of my writing:
I was young. I was naïve. I started a citywide bagel war and took no prisoners.medium.com