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Vacating the Internet

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. That may be true as it pertains to friends and family, but it was not my experience this summer when I abandoned the Internet and digital technologies for a week. In early August we headed south and spent a week holed up in a cabin in a Virginia state park (Lake Anna, if you need to know). As we did two summers ago, we decided to declare this a digital-free vacation, leaving all computers and iPads and iPods and other gear out of the equation. The only electronic gear we allowed was Kindles, since that is the primary means through which Aileen and the kids read books, and a GPS, since I’ve forgotten how to read a map. I can’t say that I missed much of what we left behind.

Now let’s be clear—there are certain ways in which I’ve learned to put boundaries on my use of electronic and Internet-connected devices. If I learned anything from writing The Next Story it’s that our technologies are always threatening to form us in their image; if we do not take them captive, they will take us captive. With varying degrees of success, I’ve found ways of taking my devices and technologies under my control. Still, I often grow lazy and complacent and in such times I find myself checking email a hundred times a day or haphazardly googling any little question that may come to mind. In such times I use my devices without reflection or restriction and I use them at the expense of other things that ought to maintain a higher priority.

What surprised me in my time away this summer was how easy it was to give up all online access for eight or nine days. Not only was it easy, it was also pleasurable. I enjoyed being offline and enjoyed not feeling the need to keep tabs on the ebb and flow of online ranting and raving. I realized anew that for a vacation to be an experience in which I vacate not only a geographic location but also whatever makes life fast-paced and stressful, I will need to vacate the Internet.

Getting off the Internet slowed the pace of life which, in turn, slowed down my mind. As soon as we left the house, which is to say, as soon as we left the Internet behind, the pace of life slowed in a noticeable way. We were no longer living from email-to-email or Facebook update-to-Facebook update. Really, there was nothing to keep up with at all, except the car ahead of us on the highway. My mind immediately slowed down, engaging with one thing instead of half thinking about it before moving on to whatever came next. In quiet moments I had no choice but to be quiet and to think where I usually dive into my pocket and pull out my phone to do something, anything.

These times of reflection allowed me to see that some of the tools I’ve been sure are my allies are actually my enemies. Maybe it is more accurate to say that I have made them enemies by refusing to control them. You have seen those people who bring a dog into their home, refuse to train it, and neglect to put boundaries around it. Before long that dog owns them and they hate their pet. I tend to do that with my technologies, so that in quiet moments I mindlessly take my phone out of my pocket and before I’ve had a single conscious thought, I’ve tapped in my password, opened email, and checked what’s new. Then I blame my phone for being distracting instead of blaming myself for allowing it to be distracting. I’m dumb that way.

Based on a week away, and other experiences through a summer that was at times busy and at times very relaxing, I’ve determined that I need to make some adjustments and course corrections in my use of digital technologies in general and the Internet in particular. Here are some of them:

  • I am planning on making Sundays a day in which I do not check email and do not surf the Internet. I see this as a way that I can remind myself every week that the real world needs to take precedence over the digital world.
  • Realizing that I have fallen into unhealthy patterns with my phone, I made email more difficult to access, burying it in a folder off the first page of apps. I plan to use my phone for email only when I absolutely need to find some information.
  • I am using my computer to check email less often and to respond to fewer messages. This includes emails where all I would respond with is a one-word answer, thus wasting someone else’s time, and emails that really serve no purpose. I am attempting to batch process email just a couple of times a day instead of allowing it to remain open at all times.
  • I am hoping to build into my life some regular self-audit times, to tighten up where I’ve gotten to relaxed and to see if I am still taking my devices under control.

I guess I will see which of these stick and which will fall by the wayside. But if nothing else, this summer showed me the value of using devices deliberately; at the very least, I need to keep that at the forefront of my mind.