Over the past weekend I decided to perform an experiment – cut myself off from all internet. No iPhone, iPad, computer… nothing. I would turn them all off and forget my entire online life existed. I admit this experiment was not really groundbreaking or life altering. Others have done more extreme experiments and most people go without internet for short periods of time for various reasons. It was merely a small, controlled way to gauge what effect the internet had on my life and maybe give me a glimpse into how society in general uses the internet.
The kernel of the idea behind giving up internet was simply to see how people lived twenty years ago and whether things have changed all that much in the present day. In 1993, our computing lives were completely different. The internet was still a small network that only super geeks accessed and the average person had no idea even existed. Some people had personal computers in their homes, but most did not. Cell phones existed, but were the size of bricks and used mostly by rich business executives. It was completely different from what many people’s digital lives have become twenty years later, in which we have 24 hour, unlimited access to the internet on multiple devices.
Given how far technology had evolved in the last twenty years, I anticipated I’d be severely handicapped by not having the internet –cut off from the world at large, isolated in my antiquity. However, what I overestimated was how integral the internet was to existing in our modern society. In fact, the biggest issue wasn’t that I couldn’t function without the internet, it was I simply found myself becoming tremendously bored.
At one point I was waiting for take-out food at a Chinese restaurant and was forced to simply sit quietly and stare at a faded panorama of the Great Wall for 15 minutes. If I had my iPhone I would have automatically pulled it out in that situation, clamoring to find some stimuli by aimlessly clicking through my sites and apps and networks. That was my habit, any time I felt bored for any reason, I’d check the internet. A commercial comes on the TV – check my Twitter. Stuck in traffic – check my email. Sitting in a waiting room –check the news.
This endless clicking around was second nature and probably how I spent the vast majority of my time interacting with the internet. I wasn’t usually looking up useful information or creating rich content or having meaningful interactions with others; I was simply mindlessly checking up on things. This is where cutting out the internet definitely changed things. While I found myself at times becoming extremely bored, it forced me to be more productive. Sitting at home and having no internet to occupy my time, I decided to get some projects done around the house that I had been putting off. Sitting at the coffee shop and not being able to check my phone, I picked up a newspaper and read it, exposing myself to articles I never would have bothered to read on a website. The boredom actually spurred me on, as I couldn’t rely on the crutch of using the internet to exclusively occupy my mind.
On a bigger picture level, a major revelation I had by eschewing the internet for the weekend was how much society hasn’t changed since 1993. We tend to think the internet was so revolutionary, that we live completely different lives than we did even twenty years ago. That if a time traveler came from 1993 he would be totally out of place and not be able to function in our modern society. However, while in some ways the internet, and technology in general, has greatly changed our lives, it still hasn’t completely washed away the past as much as one might believe.
Mail is still hand delivered to our front doors, newspapers are still being printed, landline telephones are still being used. We still go to restaurants, shop at malls, watch movies in theaters. Kids still ride bicycles, go to playgrounds, eat ice cream. People still drive gas powered cars, buy greeting cards, and use paper money. One can still live fairly trouble-free without ever using the internet – many of our parents or grandparents do this everyday. Society has changed, but the growth line of that change is much more gradual than many might realize.
Yet, I’m not recommending everyone give up their internet permanently. That’s obviously not a viable solution and won’t actually help anyone in the long run. People simply need to be more conscious of the way they use the internet. You should be in control of how you use the internet, and not let it control you. Instead of aimlessly checking things every five minutes, maybe check in every few hours. Most likely nothing important will happen in the meantime. Use the time you save to go out into the real world. If you don’t believe me, simply take a Saturday, turn off all your devices, and live like it’s 1993.