Apart from YouTube, I am missing the internet less than I might have imagined. But it has left a void, albeit a void that cries out for more than an online life can offer. The internet is an effective placebo though. And sometimes this makes it tempting to give up my year offline.
Fortunately, the hassle of setting up a new internet account and my natural inclination towards laziness proves to be a protective factor in these moments of faltering resolve. But I spend a lot of time wondering if this might not have been a mistake. Or at least I do until the signs from the universe arrive!
The day didn’t start encouragingly. I am feeling particularly low, unusual for this time of year when normally I am carried along on a wave of goal-setting excitement. I spend most of the day reading. But, eventually, as the sun is beginning to set, I wrap up warmly and head into the city. I take my laptop to the library and spend an hour or so uploading the blog posts I have been working on over the last week. It is something I expect to take ten minutes. It actually takes nearer to an hour and a half. At home, time online is timeless. I have no sense of it passing. But here, at the library, I am aware of time. Unlike my home, the library has a closing time and it is fast approaching.
As I leave the library, I am still feeling unsure that a year offline is a wise decision. Maintaining the blog with so little online time feels tricky and I have yet to factor in the routine of work. But then the first sign from the universe appears. I bump into someone I know. She is lovely – happy to see me – and she gives me a hug. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand how often I have bumped into someone I know in the eight years I have lived in this city. This feels to be confirmation that I am doing the right thing.
As I walk home, I listen to Radio 3 on my phone. I discover a new piece of music by Philip Glass that I had not known before. Mesmerising and mindful, it is one of the most interesting pieces of minimalist music I have ever heard.
And then comes the second sign. A piece of music featuring a crumhorn tune that I know well. Now you would be forgiven for not knowing anything about crumhorns. But they are musical instruments from the Renaissance period and I am one of those unusual people who used to play one. I don’t think I have ever heard a crumhorn piece played on the radio. And this is not any old crumhorn piece. This is a strange modern interpretation of a crumhorn piece, mixed with electronics. I love it. And I would not have been out walking, listening to this piece on the radio, had it not been for getting rid of the internet at home.
In the evening, BBC 4 offers two documentaries on Queen Victoria. Only days before I had been bemoaning the fact I could not advance my knowledge of Queen Victoria via YouTube following my epic effort to watch all of the ITV drama over Christmas. It seems though that even here I do not need the internet. Good ol’ fashioned television comes to the rescue.
By the end of the day, I feel pretty pleased with the signs the universe has provided and confident I am on the right track. But the universe has a couple of further signs in store for me.
As I sit writing this, I put the radio back on. I appear to have fallen in love with the radio since coming offline. What an unexpected development! Firstly, a radio programme featuring Roger Scruton – a philosopher who I spent a lot of time reading during my postgraduate degree. Then a programme on spending time in a library. How apt. And finally an advert for a radio programme on Sunday about taking creativity from paper to computer. Lots of people are asking questions about the pros, and cons, of a computerised life. Now, offline, I am free to hear their musings. The day may not have started encouragingly but it has ended that way. And, for now, I am happy.
Today I “cheat” for the first time and find a way online at home via a very ancient dongle. The connection is ropey but it allows me to watch YouTube for twenty minutes (albeit with annoying buffering pauses that are reminiscent of internet circa 1990). Less than two weeks in, it is not great to be cheating but it brings me twenty minutes of pure pleasure as I catch up on the final parts of Adrian Bliss’ end-of-year series and a vlog by Tom Rosenthal. I finish off my foray onto the internet with a quick check of my email and signing into GoodReads to update my reading challenge.
Happily, the quality of internet is sufficiently poor that I won’t be tempted to repeat this very often and the slowness of it keeps me in a calm state of mind! And, actually, I am encouraged, in spite of my naughtiness, because faced with eleven days of YouTube videos, I am very selective about what I watch. I begin to see a way forward for life after this experiment.
At the moment, it is hard to imagine that I would go back to the unbalanced online/offline life I had before. I am rediscovering the pleasure of reading books and have gobbled my way through four since coming offline. I have spent more time walking and found a love of the radio that I never knew I had. I’ve been writing letters too.
I can’t imagine allowing all these things to be crowded out again. But having read about the impact of online activity on the brain, I know it might not be as easy as I hope to maintain my resolve. So it is good to be thinking already about what strategies I might eventually put in place to protect this emerging offline life. For now, after my little slip, I am firmly back on the offline wagon and about to read the last few pages of my fifth book.
I have to be honest. This week has been characterised by cheating and today is no exception. But that is okay. This “challenge” is not intended to be another stick with which to beat myself. It is about becoming more aware of how I engage with the online world and the consequences of that on my offline life. And this is why I am not, at the moment, too worried about my occasional lapses. The new offline life I have discovered is too rewarding to relinquish. I am enjoying being outside more, reading more, listening to the radio, letter writing. And everyday brings unexpected joys.
Today two cards arrived in the post – one from my mum and another from a friend. “Thank you for your hipster email”, my friend wrote, “(a.k.a. letter)”. It made me smile. My mum had sent me a card she had chosen especially for me and filled it with photos of my niece.
As I settled into my evening, I decided to get takeaway. This is not meant to be a feature of my new offline life. But walking, it turns out, is a way around this particular challenge. As I sat and waited for it to be cooked, the man behind the counter chatted with me about the challenges of running a business. He talked about how sad it made him that he rarely got to speak to his customers now since the majority of his orders came in through the computer. It is, he described, a world away from what happened when he started running the business seventeen years ago. He didn’t know about my year offline. I think the conversation arose simply because January is the slowest month for him and he was in a reflective mood about that.
Who knows, perhaps we would have had this conversation if I had not come offline. But I am acutely aware, at the moment, of what we risk losing by moving so much of our interaction into an online environment and I am beginning to notice its impact in the most unlikely places. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter we discussed, we both laughed a lot during the conversation. It was joyful. And, I suspect, we both felt a little less lonely at the end of it. These are simple and, in some ways, inconsequential exchanges. But they matter. They matter because they create a sense of tangible belonging and community. And, without a little thought, we risk that disappearing in front of our eyes.