As anyone who has spoken to me in the last six months or so will know, I have been preparing to undergo a one year ‘net fast’. I was planning to start on Jan 1, but as a result of suddenly and unexpectedly moving house just before summer solstice, I decided to hold off until the end of April. Now the time has come, and today will be the last time I will login or use the internet in any way for a whole year. No texting either, it’s too much like email, and I’d only overcompensate and drive people crazy.

Of course, I’d love to keep in touch with people offline, and I assume I’ll have a lot more time over the coming year for phone calls, meeting up in person, and going to events. I’m also looking for paid work, so if anyone has any tips on jobs here in Ōtepoti/ Dunedin, please get in touch. Obviously I won’t be checking my email for the next year, but you can contact me by:

  • Landline: (03) 974 6571
  • Cell phone: 021 11 77 578
  • Snail mail: PO Box 7103, Mornington, Ōtepoti, 9040

After more than fifteen years of being an internet evangelist, and nearly a decade of having my own computers and regular access to broadband, I have only vague memories of how the analogue half lives. I haven’t sent a letter in an envelope to a penpal for years (I’ll do my best to reply to anyone who posts me a paper letter during the next year). I want to know what life is like in 2014 for those who can’t afford regular net access, or a reliable computer, or choose for whatever reason not to use them. I want to challenge my own techno-utopian assumptions that everyone should want to go digital, and that it can make the world a better place. I want to take some time to reflect on everything this whole digital revolution thing seemed to promise in the late 90s, and how many of the idealist dreams we had have been realized, or even come close.

Even before I decided to net fast, I started noticing the unwillingness of government departments to supply paper forms, or answer their phone, without suggesting its easier to do whatever I want to do on their website, now with the creepy “RealMe” login. Already I’ve experienced the confused, awkward pauses when I tell people “I don’t use the internet”, or “I don’t use email”. Already I’ve had a cell phone company tell me I must have an email address, since they don’t send out paper bills. Work and Income have handed me a list of job search websites, and already I’m anticipting some pointed questions when they find out I’m not using the net, even though there’s no law that says people have to use the internet. All this and more, and I haven’t even started the actual fast yet!

Of course I’m not the first person to find myself feeling like my life is being consumed by SkyNet, and wanting to unplug. New York tech writer Paul Miller came back online half way through 2013, and from what he describes in his comeback blog post on Verge.com, it sounds like his reasons for taking a year off were fairly similar to mine. Paul managed to write half a book in his year offline (to be fair he was writing regular blogs for Verge throughout as well). I’m challenging myself to write a whole book. In fact, I have already started writing it. The book will revolve around the story of the months of preparations and procrastination leading up to unplug day, my experiences of a year as a voluntary ‘internet illiterate’, and whether the world looks any different after the year finishes.

The working title of the book, ‘Email Ate My Life’, expresses my frustration with the amount of time I was spending reading and writing email and web pages in the last year or two, and the way it left me too busy or too tired to spend time with people in person. This touches on another major theme I want to explore in the book, which is my theory that the uneven pricing of different kinds of telecommunications services has tended to push us towards anti-social communication habits. I don’t mean flaming and trolling, although it arguably contributes to those too. What I’m getting at is that communication tools which are mostly text-based, delayed, and indirect, such as email, IRC, IM (Instant Messaging), SMS (”texting”), FaceBook and Twitter are generally cheaper to use, and more likely to have affordable ‘all-you-can-eat’ deals, than audio-visual, real-time tools like landlines, cell phones calls, Voice over IP services, and bandwidth-hogging voice and video calls using software like Skype, Hangouts, and FaceTime. The text tools also tend to be cheaper and more predictable than transport, and other costs involved in meeting up in person, and with the exception of IRC and IM, they don’t require people to be available at the same time. I’m not saying anyone planned it this way, but these perverse incentives are bound to be affecting the depth and quality of our relationships, our social life, and maybe even corrosive to a democratic culture.

As you can tell I want the book to be more than a gonzo memoir - ‘Fear and Loathing in Person’ - focused solely on my personal catharsis, or the lack thereof. I want to probe into why I’ve developed the communication habits I have, and how the strange attractors which are shaping my behaviour may be changing our whole society. I intend to ask the hard questions about how we can transform our communication habits, technologies, and institutions, to make sure that they are serving us and our environments, rather than the other way around.

My teenage daughter is a digital native. She started learning to use a mouse as a toddler, and the internet is as natural to her as the landline phone was to me when I was growing up. Chances are slim that my net fast will be permanent. I hope to come back in a year’s time with a much clearer idea of what the net is really good for, and what things are better done elseways.

Filed May 1st, 2014 under Uncategorized
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