The Revenge of Analog, Part I

I tried fleeing wireless for the wilds. So now what?

Our interfaces are failing us.

Again.

Of course, every communications platform has its pitfalls. But we’ve now reached the backlash phase for mobile devices. The constant blink-beep-bloop, piercing our concentration. Rude mute teens at the dinner table, heedless pedestrians planted in the middle of the crosswalk, hapless naked celebrities wondering why their privacy has been breached — for many, it’s hitting a limit. This week’s unveiling of the Apple watch only upped the anxiety ante.

What, fret social critics, in god’s name are we going to do?

These digital haters aren’t just fuddy-duddies and mustachioed hipsters —questioning ubiquitous tech has gone mainstream. Clay Shirky, who celebrates the promise of tech-enabled participation in his 2009 Here Comes Everybody, just reluctantly announced that he’s asking his students to stow their devices during class. Coffee shops have begun offering weekend wi-fi free hours. There’s even a new fall TV show, Selfie, dedicated to the retraining of one gadget-enthralled heathen unsubtly based on Eliza Doolittle.

It’s enough to send one screaming back to analog reality, to deep-six the iPhone and contemplate ancient redwoods. Someone like Michael Harris, author of the newly released End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Someone like me.

Do digital sabbaticals do the trick?

No one could call me a Luddite. I’ve spent the last two decades working to figure out how to haul everyone online so we can hash out our civic battles there. I’ve run ethernet cable through the ducts of an elementary school, travelled to Brazil to discuss plans for a connected Amazon, co-authored a book about how social media has helped reshape political news, and live tweeted more future-of-media discussions than I care to recall. My career has been dedicated to the proposition that everyone needs and deserves access to our online public sphere.

But maybe not every freaking moment of the day?

Last year, with my husband’s academic sabbatical looming, I decided to reorganize my relationship with my devices. I’d already become beyond leery about how much time I spent compulsively scanning Twitter, sifting email after email, and jamming RSS feeds through my numb brain.

My job was basically to find cool things for cool people trying to make the world a better place through media innovation. How could I complain? Still, no doubt, I was fried — what Harris defines as “overspired” — i.e., “the experience of too much inspiration, resulting in no further gains of creativity.” I’d had a series of achingly transparent nightmares: suitcases too full to carry and the cab waiting, apartments too stuffed with furniture to fit in the moving truck, dorm rooms full to bursting with the semester clock running down. My mind felt like a cavernous, messy attic.

Like Harris, I hoped some real time away could give me some perspective. He chose to absent himself in one fell swoop: an “analog August,” which he found excruciating to maintain from his wired home. We orchestrated two shorter bursts off the proverbial grid — three weeks in the Southwest at the beginning of my husband’s year off, and a 10-day run at the end in Northern California.

The rules of disengagement: no email, no social networks, no TV, no radio, no internet (save the occasional peek at a digital map). And for me, an extra addiction to kick—no fiction, to counter the narrative binges enabled by Amazon, Comcast and Netflix. Our aim was to hit some of the country’s most remote regions, to hike, hang with the rocks and sea, and absorb no new digital data.

The solace of solitude

In researching his book, Harris writes, he interviewed “neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, technology gurus, literature professors, librarians, computer scientists, and more than a few random acquaintances who were willing to share their war stories. And all these folk, moving down their various roads, at least crossed paths — in that place called Absence. …Every expert, every scientist, and every friend I spoke with had a device in his or her pocket that could funnel a planet’s worth of unabridged, incomprehensible clamor. Yet it was absence that unified the elegies I heard.”

Sure enough, it was absence we fled towards. National parks were our prime destinations. The Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is so impassable that it contains the spot that was the last in the U.S. to be mapped. It spreads out in glorious, rocky wi-fi free splendor. Signs in the Kodachrome Basin State Park at the mouth of the 1.8 million-acre monument advise visitors where they’ll have to go to cop some bars. We slept in a tent, cooked over a fire, and wrote in our paper journals — a moment of antique bliss.

Like Escalante, Northern California’s “Lost Coast” is remote by virtue of difficult terrain. Bordered to the east by the King Range National Conservation Area, stewarded as Escalante is by the Bureau of Land Management, much of the 24-mile stretch of coast is accessible only via a rugged hiking trail. While we only managed a six mile trek, that afternoon was blithely free of not only phone signals, but vehicles, electricity, and with a few exceptions, manmade structures. We sat and watched the sea lions and stretched our burning calves. In Harris’ parlance, for a few hours at least, we’d successfully “gone Walden”

However, it was in Shelter Cove — an adorable and disconcertingly suburban enclave that’s the region’s primary port of call—that I experienced connection envy. A couple at an adjacent table flirted by showing one another texts they’d received. Meanwhile, I had no bars. The injustice! This condition is akin to one Harris diagnoses: “disconnection rage” — i.e, “a sudden and unaccountably fierce meltdown brought on by five minutes of lost access to the Internet.”

I’m reminded that even when I’m trying to stay offline, I’m still acutely aware of whether the possibility is open to me. Compulsively, I reach for my device, and have to discipline myself not to glance at it for comfort.

By far, the most remote area we visited was New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness — the nation’s first officially designated wilderness area, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. A higher level of conservation beyond national parks, these federally protected areas are defined as those “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” They’re designed to preserve not only significant ecological, scenic, or historical treasures, but “solitude” itself.

“Wilderness provides a sense of wildness, which can be valuable to people whether or not those individuals actually visit wilderness,” explains the National Park Service FAQ. “Just knowing that wilderness exists can produce a sense of curiosity, inspiration, renewal and hope.”

While in this wilderness, we’re trapped for a bit in our hiking trail parking lot by rushing waters that have flooded debris over the only bridge leading back to the main road. For a few moments, this is no pastoral lark — the rangers have already lost one family of hikers out in the backcountry and had to summon a rescue helicopter. We hover nervously around the tricked-out SUV we’ve rented and tally up our food and water, while rangers cluster and speak sotto voce into their walkie-talkies.

But soon enough, the tow trucks arrive, the bridge is cleared, and we make our way back to our remote casita for a couple more data-free days to contemplate the landscape before it’s time to get back on the plane.

The time we spent in these far-flung spots drove a few points home. For one, I am lamentably hooked on the always-on lifestyle, to the point where I strain my eyesight and court repetitive strain injuries cramming updates into my shrieking nervous system. Harris calls this “techno-brain burnout,” a term coined by UCLA researcher Gary Small.

“I found myself desperate for sanctuary,” Harris writes. “I wanted release from the migraine-scale pressure of constant communication, the ping-ping-ping of perma-messaging, the dominance of communication over experience.”

A latticework of grids

But even when you’re off of one grid, you’re hard pressed to escape all of them. The highways we drove on, the parks and wildernesses we hiked in, the emergency alert system the rangers triggered, even the now-unglamorous electricity we used nearly everywhere we stayed rely on complex, federally regulated systems. Even the “radically sustainable” earthships where we spent two nights outside of Taos were still wi-fi enabled.

Even the earthships had wi-fi.

“Going Walden” is a temporary patch at best, concludes Harris regretfully. “Our twenty-first-century Thoreau would have difficulty discerning the limits of his experiment…Where would he draw the line? Arguments could be made against any aspect of life, since none is untouched by the Internet’s influence.” In the end, he decides: “There is no totalizing theory, no maxim, with which we can armor ourselves. Nor is digital abstinence the answer, absolute refusal being just another kind of dependence, after all.”

Though this sounds dire, there are choices left to us. Unplugging reminded me that not everyone lives this way. Our donkey-wrangler on the North Rim trail, the geologist with whom we watched the rushing waters of the Gila River, the innkeepers at our various rural outposts — they weren’t twitching to check their Twitter streams. Large sections of the Four Corners region have spotty-to-no cell service. Even the Northern California coast, just hours from the country’s most famously wired city, boasts long stretches where my AT&T-powered iPhone searched in vain for a signal.

Of course, not only are there physical holes in the country’s wireless infrastructure, but many people simply can’t afford to be constantly online. In other words, Harris’ “end of absence” is a symptom of a surfeit of access — in the un-PC parlance of Internet memes and comedy clubs, a “first world problem.”

That said, on the road, it still felt as though we’d reached a tipping point. Where on previous trips I’d hunted out internet cafes and Starbucks signals to check in on my web-based livelihood, on this year’s trips I found myself charting gaps in connection instead.

Nice work if you can get it

Pundits and journalists seem to be among the most afflicted by this constant connectivity. A rash of online media-makers — including Ariana Huffington, former Onion digital director Baratunde Thurston and Grist political blogger David Roberts, among others — have documented their experiments in stepping offline.

I’m right there with them. Like Harris, I began my career as a reporter and cultural critic, and then slowly found my faculties swamped by a tidal wave of possible targets and an ocean of others’ opinions. Once pleasurable habits — keeping current, staying visible, honing a quip — gradually became compulsions.

“I was never completely where I was, never entirely doing what I was doing. I always had one eye on the virtual world. Every bit of conversation was a potential tweet, every sunset a potential Instagram,” writes Grist’s Roberts, in a typical passage from one of these accounts.

Naturally, in the snake-eating-its-own-tail logic of online debate, there are now critics of this backlash. “The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance,” writes Nathan Jurgenson in The New Inquiry. “The most obvious problem with grasping at authenticity is that you’ll never catch it, which makes the social media confessional both inevitable as well as its own kind of predictable performance.”

Well, drat.

So, yes, granted — we may be privileged, obnoxious and hypocritically trumpeting our offline epiphanies to an online audience. But we’re also frogs in the hotpot, canaries in the coal mine. Our excesses offer lessons for others just coming online. Unfettered access breeds abuse. By sharing our stories, we surface and affirm a larger social syndrome, and frame it as a problem subject to collective action.

My name is Jessica, and I am a web-oholic.

But wait, there’s more…

While the world as a whole has not reached the halfway mark for internet connectivity, Harris notes, there are now 6.8 billion cell phone subscriptions across the globe — nearly one for every individual.

In the U.S. we’re busy connecting up not just computers, phones, and game consoles, but an increasing array of “things”: scales, forks, toothbrushes, piggybanks, pets, even the shirts on our backs, wired to optimize our every interaction.

This map purports to show every connected device in the world

It’s in these objects— the much-hyped “Internet of Things” — where I see our next wave of both perils and promise.

Harris laments the influence of technologies that have already been widely adopted, and locates the pivot point in his generational position as among the last of those who knew the world both pre- and post-Internet. But at the same time that those of us surrounded day and night by screens are struggling to adjust to that lifestyle, new possibilities, new interfaces — each its own pivot point — are looming, probably faster than we’re prepared for.

“Look at the rate of penetration,” Harris writes, “The amount of time it takes for a new technology to be adopted by fifty million people. Radio took thirty-eight years to reach that mark; the telephone took twenty years, and television took thirteen. More recently, the World Wide Web took four years, Facebook took 3.6, Twitter took three, and the iPad only took two. Google Plus, which nobody even finds useful, took only eighty-eight days to be adopted by fifty million.”

In other words, to crib a line from Shirky, here comes everything.

So, what are we going to do about it?

See Part II: Returning to Our Senses

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