The summer I accidentally tracked my daily Internet usage and I what I learned.
The Internet (digital, social) pays my bills and honestly I love the Internet.
However this summer I had a very different experience than my normal “sit at the computer for most of the day or talk about the Internet in meetings” life in New York City.
I spent the better part of seven weeks in Upstate NY volunteering on a farm and exploring the Berkshires. During that time I was semi-connected. Meaning I did what I had to do online for clients (and a little more) but not much more. The house I was in didn’t have wifi so I bought a MiFi hotspot to take with me so that I could still do what I had to do but be somewhere other than my office.
Since I was paying for Internet by usage, I kept a watchful eye on how I used my data. It was $90 for 5GB. I was surprised at how quickly it started to get eaten up.
I didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg so had to learn quickly that it was important to be frugal with my time online. I didn’t watch one streaming video, that alone would have eaten up my entire data plan. I didn’t click or search around for every little thing that popped into my head. I used my time online in short bursts and concisely. If I needed to look up hours to visit someplace or directions, I kept my task to the point and short. This might be how other people search and use the Internet but not me. I’m always clicking around, working with 10+ broswer tabs open, thinking one thing and looking it up and thinking another and looking that up too.
It was a hard adjustment. I wanted to know how old Eleanor Roosevelt was when FDR died. I wanted to know 10 recipes for blueberry muffins (if I only really needed one). I wanted to know the history of the Vermont rock quarry swiming hole we went to and the full biography of Sam Shepard after we saw his newest play at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
I could look up a few things, but it wasn’t a buffet of anything I wanted anytime I wanted it anymore. I had to order off a menu.
Every day I would go to “check usage” and wait for the stats to pull up. How did I do? Was I going to run out?
I returned to my comfortable New York apartment last Friday. Now that I’m back, I admit that I sat for one whole evening just to catch up on The Daily Show monologues. I once again have all of the information of the web at my fingertips all for one low monthly price.
While having all of the information at my fingertips for a fixed cost is amazing (small house swoon anyone?) there is something about it that has been rubbing me the wrong way.
So then I thought about it. What if having the internet all the time, at a low-cost, isn’t a good thing? What if it’s like fast food? It’s there and it’s not cost-prohibitive but it doesn’t really fill you up with the nutrients you need.
Everyone has heard of keeping a journal or tracking things like daily exercise and daily food consumption. What if we tracked internet usage?
They say by keeping a food journal that people cut down on drive-by snacking and little food here and there throughout the day that they eat and don’t even think about.
Tracking any behavior — from the steps we take each day to the hours we sleep at night — makes us more aware of them.
Without meaning to, I self-tracked my Internet usage this summer. I was surprised to learn that I don’t need endless access nearly as much as I think I do. I can get by with a whole lot less and not really miss it.
Truth is, most of us are able to graze at the online hypothetical trough all day without thinking about it and without immediately obvious repercussions.
But there must be repercussions, right? Something that happens to us when we rely on having information at-the-ready 24/7. The addictive nature of reaching for our phones at any given moment, of having a computer open and ready to assist in our every whim.
I’ve made a decision. I don’t want to go back to the way it was before this summer. I am going to challenge myself to think consciously about what I do online (is there value? is this how I should be spending my time?) and I think by asking those two simple questions I will be able to minimize the time I spend roaming the web at large. Being on email. Checking my phone when I’m walking, when I’m at dinner, when I’m waiting 3 minutes for my coffee at the coffee shop. I’m perfectly capable of spending time alone with my thoughts or spending time with my friends and family.
I’m not really interested in going cold turkey. I love the Internet too much. But that’s not the point. The goal is to be more intentional around how I use this tool, this great invention that I’m lucky enough to have access to at all, let alone whenever I want.
I’ve applied this rationale and intentional living to other aspects of my life — the food I eat for example — but I had not thought about it in terms of time spent online. If I were to compare the Internet and fast food, I would say this:
Just because it doesn’t cost a lot of money, doesn’t mean it’s good for you.
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This essay originally appeared on my newsletter at The Causemopolitan.