From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 30, 2002*: 72 hours offline

For three days during Rosh HaShannah, due apparently to a mixture of a server accident and some phone line problems, I was unable to go online, either to check my mail or use the internet in any other way. They were, as to be expected, a trying three days. But for the first 45 years of my life I never had access to e-mail, and that rather lenghty period of time apparently prepared me for the deprivation of three days. I seem to have survived. But of course that survival doesn't come as much of a surprise. What perhaps does, however, is the fact that those three days turned out to be much less than a traumatic experience.

I can rather accurately be described as a heavy internet user. I'm connected throughout the day at work, and then through most of the evening (and much of the night) at home. Not including spam, I can expect to receive between seventy to 100 e-messages per week - newsletters to which I subscribe, work related messages, and of course letters from friends and family, sometimes personal messages, sometimes the all-too-frequent forwardings of jokes I've received numerous times already. It's been almost two years since we received a dedicated phone line at home, and that line has allowed us to be online pretty much anytime we want. During those almost two years I've adjusted (without any difficulty) to having access to the vast resources of the web anytime of the night or day.

Just what does that access offer me? Well, access is basically just that - a possibility. I can do with it whatever I please. Ultimately, what's important isn't what I do with it, but simply the basic, somehow comforting, fact that it's there. Our homes have running water, though outside of a dripping sink we certainly don't leave it running all the time. We have electricity, though once again, for at least much of the day the appliances connected to them aren't turned on. We have a gas line which, except when we want to cook something, is always closed, but still accessible. And of course we have a phone line, and we're very lucky that it isn't ringing throughout the day. I'll even admit to different parts of the year during which we seem to have an ant line going through the house, though I think that that's among the items I'd be willing to hermetically shut down if I could figure out how.

As is to be expected (except of course with the ants) it's when these lines cease to function correctly that we become most aware of them. So being offline for 72 hours, after a lenghty period of having continuous access whenever I want it, was just what I needed in order to made me accutely aware of how dependent I am on this medium. But did it?

Considering that it was the Rosh HaShannah weekend I wasn't really expecting to receive much e-mail. I also figured that the forums I'm a part of would be rather dormant as well. And anyway, I was intending to spend more time with my family, and being offline should have made that all the easier. And of course being offline doesn't have to mean not using the computer. Strange as it may seem, many of us had computers before there was much of an internet to merit going online for, and we did quite a bit with them. Some people even claim that they were more productive before they learned to leave their internet connections open all the time.

Not having access to the internet didn't only mean that I couldn't check my e-mail. That was, I admit, the most pressing need, but there were other reasons that merited being online. If I can't go online, I have to rely on the radio or the television to get the news. Of course it's possible to adjust to having to use such outmoded technologies, but after getting used to clicking on the news whenever I want, it's hard to remember to turn the radio on at a precise hour. Not listening to the news can actually be a pleasurable experience, but how are we going to know what's happening at Wimbledon if we're not online? And of course it's hard to get by without the Internet Movie Database. This site is to the web what, I suppose, popcorn is to a microwave oven. As I'm quite sure I've written before, but can't seem to find the reference, the kids in our house go to sleep late. It thus happens that if we turn the television on to pick up a film, chances are good that we've already missed at least the first half hour, and that means that we've missed the title and the opening credits. So how are we supposed to know what film it is, and whether it's worth watching? That' precisely what the IMDb and the internet are for. Tzippi will tell me who the main actors are, and I'll run a complex search on two names. The results will be the film in which both stars appeared. I'll then be able to click over to reviews of the film, invariably learning that it's not worth watching.

When I was finally able to once again access my e-mail, I wasn't surprised that I hadn't missed much. One person informed me (face to face) that she'd sent me a number of urgent messages (which of course I hadn't received, and hadn't replied to) but for some unclear reason these never arrived. Even without them, when I finally did get around to checking my mail, I had 54 e-mail messages waiting for me, pretty much par for a three day period. Actually, considering that many friends probably weren't sending e-mail during those same three days, it seemed a bit too large a quantity of e-messages. Which it was - the bulk of it turned out to be junk mail.

So there I was, an internet junkie, discovering that kicking the habit cold turkey didn't even cause me to break out in a sweat. Instead of discovering that I couldn't live without the internet, I discovered that I was quite capable of surviving without the services it offered me. My three days offline were, ultimately, a quiet and relaxing three days. But they weren't necessarily productive. Though I thought that not having access would free me from distractions and thus compel me to write more, the opposite turned out to be the case. Not being online hurt my rhythm. It broke my style. Perhaps being offline gave me more time to write, but it did so in such a way that I wasn't able to use it. I missed the stimulus that for some is little more than a never-ending stream of distractions, but that for me has become a muse. While offline I somehow lack the inducement to action that for me has become the essence of being connected. It's as though I only truly become productive when conflicting stimuli are battling for my attention. For some being online may well be a threat to productivity, but for me it seems to have become a prerequisite to getting something accomplished.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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