I took a vacation from the Internet, which coincided with a vacation plain and simple, from August 15 to 22. We were in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a resort town on the Atlantic coast, with my parents, my sister, and my brother and sister-in-law. I would love to spend many more pleasant summer weeks by the ocean, but I don't think I want another long stint offline.
The week disrupted my usual media diet in numerous ways, as often happens when travelling. When we are with my parents the TV is often tuned to CNN or MSNBC, and without a DVR there is a fair bit of muting and channel changing to avoid commercials . Our usual ways of television viewing are different -- we watch almost no news, and almost nothing when it airs. Cable news generally makes me either disappointed or exasperated, especially when there is no compelling big story unfolding like a war breaking out or a tight national election race, and during our week away I did my best to ignore it when it was on, preferring to read novels (like Michael Connelly's unputdownable legal thriller, The Lincoln Lawyer). One of the few unambiguous benefits of no internet, for me, is that I spend more time reading books. When I wake up in the morning with Leo and he watches a kid show, instead of reading blogs as I would at home, I read fiction.
At home we listen to the radio every day, always our NPR member station WUWM. I hear "From NPR News in Washington, I'm--" and I know it's "Lakshmi Singh" before she has a chance to say it. There was no radio in the kitchen of the house we were renting (the kitchen is where I do most of my listening), and I never bothered to find an NPR frequency in the car.
My dad went out every morning to buy the NYT, so there was news to read. But after a few years of accessing news online, I avoid the paper paper. The ink comes off on my fingertips. I have to browse through page after page of ads that don't speak to me to find an article I want to read, and if it bores me after a few grafs there is no back button to easily navigate to something else. The paper Times is missing some of the best parts of nytimes.com, the blogs like And the Pursuit of Happiness and the most emailed articles list. Most egregious, my parents (who I love dearly!) have the unbreakable habit of abandonning sections left turned to whichever page they read last, so that you might pick up a crumpled rectangle of grey paper folded to page 9 and not know whether you're even holding Business or Arts. If you don't immediately get why this ruins the whole experience of becoming informed about the world, I'm not sure I can explain it to you.
I noticed how profoundly this disruption to my regular intake of factoids was affecting me one evening late in our stay when Elana and I were walking home from a coffee shop where she but not I was able to access the internet. (Her new MacBook's airport is better at sucking WiFi from nearby sources, in this case a Hooters blasting Kool and the Gang -- inside maybe it was all celebrate good times come on, but where I was sitting it was just another twenty minutes without internet.) She said she noticed I had been pretty quiet lately. I realized it was because I had not learned any significant new information for six days! Without the internet, I had nothing to talk about. I was hearing tidbits of current events from my father, reporting on his NYT reading. I had heard that the terrorist who bombed Pan Am Flight 103 somehow managed to return to Libya to a hero's welcome, that our governor, Jim Doyle, will not seek reelection, and that some new point-and-shoot cameras were coming out with LCD screens on the front as well as the back. Ordinarily I would have known about these things half a day before he did, as I scour news sites at night hoping to read articles that the chumps stuck reading the dead trees won't see till morning. Now I was the chump.
But the worst thing about being without the web is the inability to look things up. On our first day at the beach I took my Motorola Razr for a swim, and I had no easy way of finding out if it's possible to rescue a cellphone that has been immersed for three minutes in salt water. After returning home six days later I read online that it's a good idea not only to remove and dry the battery right away (which I had done) but to immerse the phone in fresh water to clear away the mineral content of the ocean as soon as possible. It's weird to see a phone sitting in a bowl of water, but that is where mine is right now. It's probably too late, but who knows?
On the flight to Baltimore, congestion from a cold caused my ears to suffer a worse than usual crackle and pop as the air pressure changed on ascent and descent. After landing they didn't return to normal and my hearing was impaired (still is). I didn't have an easy way of looking up this unpleasant condition, which the internet now tells me is called airplane ear, and involves a blockage of my Eustachian tubes. I tried decongestants and thought I could figure out what was really wrong when I got home. This Ask Metafilter thread is a typical mix of helpful (go for the Sudafed with pseudoephedrine, the kind they keep behind the pharmacy counter because it can be used to cook up crystal meth) and ridiculous ("NEVER EVER EVER FLY WITH A COLD"). I wished I had read it a week earlier.
I know that we had ways of finding things out before the web came along, and that they still exist. There's a public library on the main drag of Rehoboth Beach, and I could have wandered over there (probably to use the internet, mind you). But what all of this makes me wonder is, why would I think of a week away from the network as something to look forward to? Why an internet vacation, rather than, say, an internet fast? I used to go without food each year on Yom Kippur. We would have dinner around 5:00 pm one day and go without food and water until about 7:00 pm the next day. My memories of fasting on Yom Kippur include more fatigue, pain, and depression than atonement for the year's sins. A ritual fast is a test of endurance, an exercise in introspection, and a communal experience of deprivation. It's no vacation!
Upon returning to my usual Firefox tabs a few days ago, the first place I went was email. I actually did manage about five minutes of email access midweek during the fast, enough time to learn that a grad school friend had become a mom (mazel tov!), among other bits of news. That was exciting. But my overwhelming sense was that very little of importance turns up in my inbox during the third week of August. Barely a dozen messages demanded any kind of action, like a reply or an entry on my calendar. Maybe I'm just not that important a person, but it would seem like one benefit of the fast was the recognition of how much time is ordinarily wasted checking in, monitoring the horizon for new stuff.
There was no way I was going to catch up on a week of Twitter and Facebook and Google Reader, three tabs I ordinarily keep an eye on all day long. When I made it to the top of the email inbox and migrated over to these other sites I found an overwhelming glut of words and pictures. I decided to basically start fresh, to look at the most recent items and forget about the rest. There are probably controversies and memes and curious items that I will never know about, permanent gaps in my knowledge of media and technology and pop culture and politics that result from my absence from it all for those seven days in August. I guess this makes me realize that none of it is very important. I can live without it. It also makes me realize how much I thrive on the sense of being connected day by day to all of these sources of information. When I looked in on Twitter and Facebook the sheer triviality of most of what I saw there impressed me most. On the typical day, I must pay attention to way too much trivia. But of course the point of all of this isn't to be found in the significance of each bit of info, but rather in the feeling of connection with others.
I know why I liked the idea of an internet vacation. It promised to free me from all that obsessive checking in, the wondering about whether someone wants something from me, or has commented on something I posted, or discovered something I need to know about. I guess I got some respite from that. It was welcome, and I'm glad for it. But goddamit, I missed my information! After we watched the season premiere of Mad Men last Sunday I wanted so badly to go online and see what people were saying about the episode. It was pretty good, wasn't it?