Last weekend, I disconnected from the web completely. I wasn’t on holiday or caught up in an all-consuming weekend adventure, it was just that over the last few months I’d been working weekends as well as full-time during the week, and I’d decided to carve out a little time off.
Unlike a holiday, though, I still needed to go about my ordinary activities. This experience revealed to me how much I’ve come to rely on the web, and highlighted some unexpected ways it’s changing my lifestyle.
When I woke up Saturday morning, I wondered what the weather would be like. Along with things like local farmers’ market locations and times, film screenings and daily news, the weather is something that I tend to check frequently online.
But since I wasn’t connected, I realized I’d just have to wait and see. If I wanted to hear the news, I’d have to plan my information consumption around the television or radio schedules. Or (gasp!) buy a newspaper from the nearest shop, six kilometers away.
Yes, the web gives us access to information on demand, but over the weekend, I realized I’ve come to expect this as a given. Losing that access made me seek alternatives where I could, but mostly, I simply went without the information.
In some cases, this actually curtailed my activity: If you can’t remember — or find out — when the local farmers’ market’s on, you’ll probably forget about it, rather than driving an hour or more to discover it’s not actually on this weekend.
Ultimately, not having access to information forced me to take chances, or to forgo activities.
A lot has been written about the self-obsessive tendencies of those who spend time preening online personas rather than interacting with the real world. For me, without external information and entertainment (for which you could read ‘distraction’), the focus seemed to narrow considerably. It narrowed to whatever I was doing at that exact moment.
By losing touch with the world outside, I was able to hone in on the present, and on myself. Instead of reacting to external information obtained online, my own motivations became clearer. They became the driver for my day.
A very simple example: Since I didn’t know what the weather was going to be like, I planned my weekend solely on the basis of what I wanted to do at any given time. This self-focus and self-motivation extended into other areas as well, and it was different from the norm.
I wondered if that feeling of ordinarily being motivated or driven by what I find online applied to other web workers. I wondered if it may contribute to the sense many web workers experience of being at the mercy of technology and information.
Without the web, I had much less outside impetus to do things; everything depended on my mood and internal motivation.
As you’d expect, lacking access to email and IM meant that all my contact had to be personal. Unless I could fit my communication into a text message, I’d have to call — or visit — someone to communicate with them. Of course, I always use the web to look up phone numbers I don’t know, so it was just as well I didn’t need to contact anyone whose number I hadn’t already saved to my phone.
As someone who values space, the idea of having to call four different people to try to organize a festive season gathering really didn’t appeal, so I put it off until I was back at my computer during the week. As it turns out, I’d rather delay contact than be forced to talk (as I saw it, endlessly) on the phone.
Of course, I received contacts from friends and colleagues online over the weekend, and missed them all. Miscommunication and general confusion ensued — proof that the web worker’s horror of disconnection is probably justified. After all, this was just one weekend.
The instant, always-on nature of the web has made timeliness a priority, and an expectation: People expect to be able to get in touch with us at the last minute. I expect to be able to do the same.
Being disconnected restricted my contact to the immediate — phone or face-to-face communications — and reduced the amount of flexibility I felt I had.
As my disconnected weekend progressed, I found myself less and less preoccupied with anything — any event, person, or piece of information — that wasn’t within my immediate physical realm.
In short, if it wasn’t hitting me in the face, it didn’t matter.
Without my calendar, I had no idea which social engagements I was supposed to be anticipating. Without email I had no expectation that anyone would contact me without my knowledge. I had nothing to check, nothing to confirm, nothing to concern myself with.
This was a relief. Naturally, being less preoccupied with an external world allowed me to focus more closely on what I was actually doing. Without the thought that I should check my mail, or the inclination to look at the news as I passed my desk, I was free to put my whole mind to the tasks at hand. This was a great thing, even if I had no idea what was happening in the news.
Occasionally I wondered what might be happening elsewhere in the world — including online — but I did enjoy having a clear focus on the here and now.
Ultimately, being disconnected highlighted how easy the web makes coordinating events with other people, and obtaining information that helps us stay organized.
I realized that to plan a family lunch without the web, I’d have to call a bunch of people, which made it seem like an awful lot of effort. Sending an email to five people takes maybe ten minutes. Calling those same five people would take at least fifteen minutes apiece. Planning social events is much more time-consuming without the web.
Almost all the other tasks for which I’d have used the web that weekend were to search for information that is available in newspapers, on town calendars, and so on. If I had to live without the web, I’d still be able to access the information I need, but it would need to be a much more planned, less spontaneous proposition.
The web reduces our need to plan ahead, and to anticipate potential needs for information.
Profile of a Web Worker
Does this image depict the common web worker?
- doesn’t (or can’t) anticipate needs for information or plan contacts with others
- is happily distracted from their immediate circumstances by the web
- relies, to some degree, on the web for inspiration or motivation
- feels a sense of missing out, preoccupation, or an ongoing curiosity about the online world as a result of these three factors
This description does seem to define, in some part, many of the web workers I know. While I’m not saying this is all we are — not by a long shot — I do think that some time spent completely disconnected from the web probably isn’t a bad idea. I think the aspect that surprised me most was the fresh sense of motivation I felt; I enjoyed relying on my internal motivations for once, rather than seeking information to inspire me to take action.
Do you disconnect completely from the web? Have you found that it changes your expectations or behavior?