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Unplugging from The Matrix



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Sunday: At 10:37 p.m., as I was in the midst of a frantic bid to move my life offline before midnight, I had one persistent thought running through my mind: this is so stupid.

Why was I doing this? I was copying 13 files of notes, half-written stories, finished pieces that might need to be edited and scads of emails with phone numbers I’d need for work – and for life--through our week of enforced disconnection from the cyberworld. I was looking up phone numbers on switchboard.com and other websites before Internet access went dark and I’d have to resort to directory assistance again, like in the good old 1980s.

I set up “Best way to reach me this week is by phone” messages. I figured out how to turn off the email to my Blackberry just minutes before midnight – by emailing the colleague who had this stupid idea to begin with. I filled out my weekly timecard. I sent an electronic thank you note. But I didn’t get around to filing the expense report that was due before the stroke of midnight hit (still haven’t.)

Then, just as I was about to turn off the computer and go dark, yanking the plug that connects me to the Internet out of the back of my head, just like those guys on The Matrix, like an addict, I twitched.

Just one more hit. Just one more thing to check …

I plugged back in. And for two more hours, I cruised guiltily at light speed trying to line up a place to stay in New York City and discount Broadway tickets for when my two sisters, my mother and my niece come all the way out from Oregon for my niece’s high school graduation trip in June. The Internet: a useful tool not safe to be left in the hands of an indecisive, perfectionist, obsessive-compulsive type. Whatever happened to going with the flow?

At 1:44, I finally shut down.

Monday: I woke and felt weird not to immediately check my Blackberry as I got to the bottom of the steps and headed to breakfast.

Though we were supposed to let people “discover” our being unplugged on their own, by noon, I had already let the cat out of the bag three times - to the guy I was trying to rent an apartment from in New York – “I sent you an email this morning, then saw that you needed to be contacted by phone” – he said a bit huffily – and my sister. “Are you not on the internet?” she said, annoyed that I was refusing to go online to check out discount Broadway ticket prices. And I told a friend, who wondered why I was so tired. “Wow, that sounds crippling.”

I “accidentally” called up my email and couldn’t stop myself before reading two. I did get one little enticing red asterisk on my Blackberry and couldn’t resist pressing the button – it was a text message from my babysitter saying she couldn’t pick up the kids Tuesday. What’s clear to me is that the guy who suggested doing this does not have kids and is not planning a family vacation. Stressing about how to plan my kids’ summer camps – deadlines are approaching and most registration is online …

Tuesday:This unplugging was getting to be a drag. Totally inefficient. And I am making people mad. Just today, I missed my daughter’s voice lesson because I didn’t get the teacher’s email about the schedule. I didn’t get the note that the place for the ballet rehearsal had changed. Two friends called to get answers to little questions – my address, whether we could babysit. Now, they had to call. Leave messages. Get a call back. We did chat a little bit on the phone, but not much. So it’s not like it deepened my relationship with either one. It just made things more complicated. “Wow. I don’t see how you can do that,” said one when I told her about the experiment. “Stupid,” said another. “Weird,” said the music teacher stranded on my front porch.

“You can send an email,” said the nice secretary when I tried calling someone for a story.

“No, I can’t,” I responded. “Can you have him call me?”

Silence.

I get it that I have let my Internet usage spin out of control – it caters to the very worst of my instincts – wanting to know it all, not to miss anything big or important, hours lost mindlessly noodling, a superficial skimming of a smattering of bits of random recipes, New Agey advice from some link my sister sent, news articles and celebrity detritus. I found myself bummed that I couldn’t quickly look up on the web who Robert Downey Jr. was married to, after seeing a promo for Iron Man2, … Do I really need to know that? Will it add anything to my life beyond cocktail banter?

Another friend, Amy Young, somewhat mystified that I hadn’t responded to an email of a review of some of her poetry that was performed last weekend, dropped by a hard copy and stuffed it in my mailbox. Along with a poem she thought would be appropriate for the spirit of the week’s experiment:

You will not find me on Facebook
Patrolling my web like a queen spider,
Nor are my sheepdog instincts so ingrained
That I feel compelled to patrol the perimeters
Of my domain.

You, my reader, separated from me
By no more than seven degrees,
Surely, you do not wish me to ask you
To be my friend?

Frustrated I couldn’t check my bank balance or pay my mortgage online.

Is it Friday yet?

Wednesday:Dilemma. Story due tomorrow. Someone gives me a couple contacts, but only has email addresses. Keep to the spirit of the experiment and write a crummy story? I can't do that. Open Firefox. I feel dirty.

I have been thinking lately of all the time this time-saving device takes – the two days I spent trying to fix an Internet connectivity problem, calling Apple and Verizon, hours on the phone with tech people, cleaning out caches – hundreds and hundreds of mirror images of all the places I’ve wandered on the web that build up, like plaque on the arteries, slowing down the blood flow. All for the sweet hit of information.

What was good about being – mostly – dark today: I chaperoned my daughter’s field trip to the Aquatic Gardens. I had five kids to look after. Unlike on other field trips, I left my Blackberry in the bag. It somehow released me from the sense of guilt I usually have about my divided time and divided loyalties. I knew that I would make up the hours in a non-traditional work day, and that I would get my work done. There was something so nice about looking at turtles and watching a flurry of tadpoles scamper under the protective cover of lily pads as a blue egret loomed overhead. I ate lunch with the kids – watched the casual trading of a crush cup for a bag of sun chips, the sharing of carrots, the nascent flirting and the chitter chatter. Another mother busily texted on her pink handheld device, oblivious to the chaos around her. On any other day, that would have been me. On this day, I was so grateful it wasn’t.

Thursday:Free at last. Editor called to say I could plug back in if my story required it. It was like taking a long, sweet hit of pure oxygen. I emailed and posted freely for the story I’m working on. But. I feel deflated, too. I’ve cheated just about everyday. And I let the cat out of the bag almost immediately whenever anybody raised a question. What did I learn? What was the point of this cumbersome exercise?

I don't know why, but I decided to keep a hybrid of it going until the previously decided 5 pm Friday deadline. I checked and responded only to must-read email and used the net sparingly only for my story.

I ended up telling my husband last night about the experiment. He was incredulous. “That’s crazy. Why would you do that?” Then he demanded to know whose stupid idea it was. Still, I wondered that he hadn’t even noticed.

“Didn’t you wonder why I was asking you to check my race times from the quarter marathon?” I asked (which he didn’t anyway.)

“Not really. At first I thought it was because I was just on the computer.”

“But I asked you several times.”

“Yeah, then I started to feel like, ‘Hey, what am I, the butler?’”

Friday:The ban lifted, I finally open the inbox. A sea of 407 unopened emails in red ink. And most of it junk. What did I miss? The venal back and forth about pediatricians and plumbers on the neighborhood listserv, a note from a Facebook friend to check out something that, after a few days, is so old in FB time that when I went to open it, I couldn't even find it, and a note that the AAMVA spokesman is retiring after 14 years (what’s AAMVA? I think, will have to look that one up.)

The realization that email is a tyrant. The hours of my life wasted, or at least unaware - wafting away like smoke - spent in front of a computer.

I want to share this thought with my husband, but he’s busy clacking away on his Blackberry.

“How much of the stuff that you do on your Crackberry is really that important?”

“You’re one to talk!”

“No, seriously, how much really needs an immediate response?”

“Probably 30 percent.”

“That much?”

“OK, 20.”

For me, after taking an entire half-day to clean out my inboxes, I realize it’s closer to 2 or 3 percent.

There were logistical messages I missed. Planning for this reception, messages about that meeting. The automatic message sent back to these peripheral circles of people in my life said the best way to reach me was by phone. Not one called. Too much trouble? A sign of how shallow our electronic “connections” are? Or how easy it is to get by without them? Perhaps.

Or perhaps an email is just an email. A little package of sometimes useful information I can take or leave most times. And leaving felt both stressful and scary and … freeing.

By Brigid Schulte  | May 27, 2010; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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