I write about the internet for a living, so it may seem strange to report that I’m no longer very fond of it.
This summer, I found myself without regular internet access. Ahead of the presidential elections, with the manic news cycle, widespread disinformation, and what feels like the constant need to refresh social media, I sometimes wish I were without it again.
About a week after I gave birth to my baby in June, my partner and I moved into our mostly built house in upstate New York. That’s when we learned it would take the local internet provider an astounding month and a half to install internet. Located on a mountain in the Catskills, there was no cell service to tide me over, either.
I was on maternity leave, so it was no longer vital to have internet for work, but I still really wanted it. To be fair, if I really needed it, I could walk five minutes down the road and steal my neighbor’s wifi, but I’d have to contend with the mosquitoes, the elements, and the baby. So in practice, I didn’t do so very often.
On average, Americans spend about four and a half hours a day online, according to data from the research firm Zenith. People like me who work online spend even more time there. In normal times, not only would I spend the whole workday online, I’d spend a lot of my time before and afterward there, too. I was always up to date on every news story, idle meme, and silly Twitter controversy. People who were less online — most of them — could tell me nothing I hadn’t at least seen flash across my screen.
At first, not having the internet felt like a real hassle. I felt like I was missing out or that something important might happen without my knowing. I called the provider every day hoping for an earlier installation date.
But over time, not having internet was a blessing. My sojourns onto the web were brief and more intentional. Every few days I’d go to town or to my neighbor’s house and check Twitter and Instagram, where a relatively interesting backlog of posts and messages had time to build up, and then read a few important news stories. Pretty quickly I’d turn to more practical matters that I kept track of through memos on my phone: “to look up,” “to buy,” “to do.”
I got really into reference books, where I looked and failed to identify the bee-like flies that attacked me while I was briefly outside using the internet. For baby information, instead of turning up every disparate answer in the world online, I had to sate myself with the conflicting guidance of just two parenting books. The baby survived.
I tweeted and read Twitter less. My tweets were better. My mind was better. My attention span seemed to grow longer. I sat with my feelings without reprieve, and I feel like that made me emotionally stronger.
At the time, we were in the throes of the pandemic. The death toll from the coronavirus in the US had recently surpassed 100,000. Americans were taking to the streets to protest police brutality against Black Americans, who were also being disproportionately ravaged by the coronavirus. I had felt like I needed to bear witness to it all, in order to show that I cared.
But not being online all the time didn’t mean I wasn’t informed about these very important news stories. I would catch up after the fact, when there was more conclusive information, but I wasn’t reading each incremental development.
What it did was remind me what was within my power and what was not. Reading every last tweet and news story about the coronavirus or police brutality or presidential election malfeasance only gives you the illusion of control. Bearing witness is important, but so is your mental health. Infinite scrolling can feel like a stand-in for real action. It’s not.
What I could actually do was donate money to causes I believe in, register to vote in my new home, and try my best to be present in my own life.
People blame technology for a whole spate of ills from depression to decreased productivity — though there’s little definitive proof it’s actually the cause. What’s certain to me, at least, is that continually pulling down on my phone to refresh Twitter or Instagram or the latest dire machinations of the president does not feel good.
What I learned was that things that seem important in the moment tend to become less so with time. Have an email that’s really haunting you but where your response isn’t mandatory? Try waiting till it’s no longer relevant. Feel like you need to be on Slack at all hours? Log off and await what your coworkers can do without your presence. (Of course, I’m fortunate enough to have a job where, although people might Slack me at all hours, I’m not usually required to respond. Not everyone has that.)
I found out about news hours or days later, when I was too late to weigh in. No one needed my takes. Did they ever? I read and listened to more books. I completed a variety of construction projects around my new house. I ate whole meals without opening my phone. I learned how to parent.
Looking back, the best part of all this was getting to spend uninterrupted time with my baby and partner. My baby’s first smile wasn’t missed because I was looking through a screen to somewhere else (though I guess I did take a lot of pictures). I was constantly, boringly present.
By the time the internet installation date drew near in August, I found myself dreading being online again. It felt like this newly calm portion of my life was coming to an end. I would eventually have to go back to work. But I also felt a little restored and better able to deal with the hazards of the outside world. I hadn’t realized how much the online world had burdened me.
Now, months later, I’m working online and out of my bubble. I wish I could say I’m more cautious in my internet usage, but that’s mostly untrue. The lure of the internet and social media apps is strong, especially during this dramatic election year.
What we can do is try to recognize when something really is important, and when there really is something we can do about it. Ahead of this election, vote. Then consider logging off. The events of the world will unfold whether or not we are watching them every step of the way.