Last week my internet went out for a couple of days. Also lost was the internet on my phone – apparently, it piggy-backs on the Comcast backbone and that went down over the entire region because (get this) somebody crashed their car into the fiber line.
As an aside, that is an example of the actual fragility of the internet; while the system as a whole is quite robust, an individual’s ability to use the system is fragile. When the lights are off, so is the internet.
With the internet off I lost lots of services, including strangely my Adobe typekit fonts, which I rely on to do lots of my work. Apparently, Adobe routinely disables fonts on your machine, which means when the internet is down, you can’t get them back. Of course, my household also lost lots of other conveniences – content streaming, etc.
Overall, though, it was a good thing. Ultimately, it didn’t significantly reduce my options. I have a physical music collection. If the internet is down, I can throw on a vinyl. I have a big collection of physical video games, and of course all my favorite books are sitting on my real bookshelf as real books.
The big gain was in the area of distraction. The internet offers up almost everything with immediacy, and we get trained to not wait for things. Part of that is that we don’t really think for very long or very deeply about what we really want in the moment. Things like social media tend to hijack our senses, delivering a stream of interesting things, but ultimately things that are not very satisfying.
With the internet off, my kids had to pick music to listen to from my collection (we usually listen to music while they play – there is lots of music in my house, as you can guess), which meant thinking about the selection. It also meant looking at the vinyl packaging, taking in the cover art, etc. All of these things enhance the experience quite apart from any benefits you get from the type of media itself. Putting on the Thriller LP means listening to all the music Michael Jackson and co. made during that time, and there is actually a lot of variety on an album like that. It means looking at the album and seeing what the artist actually looked like as well as what was considered eye-catching at the time.
When I sat down to work, I couldn’t check Twitter or YouTube – all I could do was work, which was nice. It also revealed to me how mind-numbing some of my tasks can be without the distraction of a second monitor or some music. As well in the evening my wife and I never checked our phones – there was no email waiting to be read and no ability to just “look something up” on the internet. The real things were more immediate, there was no lack of modern entertainment, and in general, our moods were better. We normally spend lots of time outside, but even that was improved since there was no way for anyone to send pressing emails to our pockets.
One complaint I see regarding Netflix is that people are actually overwhelmed by choice. They see a multitude of things to choose from, and they can’t pick one. They waste time thinking or trying to get a viewing partner to agree to something. With a physical collection, that’s not as much of a problem. There is inherently less risk since you know the collection. Chances are if you are like me you first encountered these movies via rental in the old days or in the theaters, in which case the risk was higher. You had to pay money for each viewing (or thereabouts with video), so you really considered what you might like. Free movies on TV were time-selected. You watched what was on, or else did one of the myriad other things you could do with your time. Part of the perception of entertainment being better in the “old days” is the fact that there were different filtering and selection systems that led you toward the content you liked.
Last night I decided to take a break from the internet as a conscious choice. I was reminded of why things “felt better” in the 1980s and 90s. There was no internet. I could just read a book for as long as I wanted without any interruption, or indeed any feeling that I needed to check on something internet-related. I could play a game and all my focus on the game. Invigorating distractions, it turns out, aren’t that invigorating after all. I’m reminded of why, some seven years ago, I decided to step back from PC gaming and play consoles again. Originally, it was to be able to walk away from work. As long as I was at my computer, I would be thinking of work and feeling guilty for not working. Physically walking to the living room allowed my to disengage from my creative work and relax.
I realize now that it also enhanced the gaming experience itself by eliminating the distraction of the internet and all the things it offers. That introverted feeling of gaming at home in the 1990s, where you could turn on your Nintendo or Playstation and just enjoy a game for a few minutes – or a few hours – without a thought for everything else in life can be here again. You just have to be willing to disconnect from the network for a while.
I realize that there might be a small irony to me conveying these thoughts on the internet itself. I’ll temper my sentiments by saying that the internet is not an evil, it’s a tool like anything else and can deliver great things. However, I think that it is worth trying out some “no internet” time, or else controlling the arrangement of your life so that access to the internet is limited and points toward what is useful and productive for you. You can get rid of your smartphone or delete social media apps, or do what I am considering, which is scheduling time for the internet to be turned off for the entire house (I can actually do this with my home network).
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