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Was unplugging just a dream?

It wasn’t a nightmare exactly.

All I knew was that people were getting sick from eating carrots. I had not covered a food-borne illness outbreak in several years, but a colleague had come to me asking for help.

And that’s when I had to tell her I couldn’t use the Internet for a week.

That’s how the dream I had the night before I went offline started. It captured my primary anxiety about the five-day experiment — that I would not being able to do my job. I imagined colleagues getting angry when I didn’t return their emails or being disinvited to lunch. I had flashbacks to the scene in “All the President’s Men” where Woodward and Bernstein are poring through a stack of reverse phone directories and I realized I had no idea where to find a phone book at the office anymore.

In the dream, no one got angry with me, but Google-less, I felt diminished. For some reason, my Rolodex had vanished and I couldn’t remember anyone’s name, so I was reduced to spitting out search terms to my colleague so she could try to pull up names and phone numbers for some of my old sources. I think at one point, I said to her, “if carrots are to blame, he would know.”

I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat, but I definitely saw the dream as a bad omen.

In reality, being offline both hurt and helped my productivity. Without instant messaging, I was less sedentary. I spoke face-to-face with colleagues more, which I found energizing. Similarly, I realized email has made me more likely to screen my calls. Without the crutch of an inbox, I answered every one. Unable to surf the Internet during reporting or writing breaks, I could not procrastinate. But I was also not able to keep up with news or the work of colleagues.

At home, after my daughter goes to bed, I usually spend most of the rest of the evening online. Instead, I spent that Monday night slumped on the couch watching back-to-back episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” I don’t know if it was withdrawal from the Internet or the overwrought vibe of the show, but I felt down. Every once in a while, my husband, who doesn’t believe a tree has fallen until he sees a Tweet about it, would shoot me a concerned and sympathetic look, the kind you give someone who’s been stricken with the flu.

As the week wore on, I felt thwarted every time I came across a reference to something I couldn’t look up. Even dumb stuff. (Whom did Kim Kardashian make that sex tape with again?) I discovered how much I have come to rely on the Internet and email not only as source of new information but as an extension of my own memory. If I didn’t have the information on a piece of paper or loaded onto my USB port, it might as well not exist. Some information, such as phone numbers of businesses, I could find by dialing 411. But other information, such as addresses for a photo shoot in Paris that had been sent to me in an email, were not as easily obtained.

By Thursday, my nightmare scenario was starting to play out. I hadn’t sent the Paris shoot information to my photo editor, who was getting increasingly nervous and agitated. I was traveling the next day and getting worried about not being able to work remotely in case something came up. I was having a hard time getting a story off the ground without the Web. So on Thursday, around 11 a.m., with two days to go, I caved. My husband told me I was a wuss, but I didn’t care. I got back on that keyboard and went surfing.

By Annys Shin  | May 27, 2010; 10:35 AM ET
 
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