“One doesn't see teenagers staring into space anymore … Strange and wonderful things occur to us in those youthful time snacks, those brief reprieves when the fancy wanders … I fear we are the last of the daydreamers."
It is Sunday and I am reading. I've picked up Michael Harris' new book, The End of Absence, and I can't put it down. Essentially, it's about how those of us born before 1985 will be the last to remember what life was like before the internet became everything. He laments the loss of absence, of the nothingness now occupied by constant connection, of a time before empty moments were filled with duties to social networks, inboxes and ubiquitous trivia. I've recently given my online life a bit of a spring clean, to wrestle back some control. Dust-gathering accounts were scrapped, mailing lists unsubscribed from, redundant social connections severed. Untethering from all of this digital baggage was remarkably satisfying. But I want to go one step further, just to see if I can. I will embrace the absence I used to know. I will go without internet for one week. Starting tomorrow.
It is Monday and I am offline. The hole in my daily routine is immediately, noticeably vast. What do I do with all these little bits of time, all these moments? They just hang there, fleeting, unshared. Of course, just because I'm neglecting usual online habits, it doesn't mean I'm not picking up my iPad every five minutes. Only now, I'm obsessively checking the status of what I'm missing. Little red badges taunt me in increments. One boasts 50 notifications already. What's going on out there? Who's saying what? How far behind am I? Will I ever find my way into the loop again? Am I needed? Am I missed?
It is Tuesday and I am mostly offline. Already there are compromises, the modern things leaking through the cracks in my resolve. For good reason though: socio-technological experiments are all well and good, but I have a business to run and a son to raise. I permit myself a single daily visit to my inbox and as much iPlayer as is necessary. How anyone is expected to parent without Shaun the Sheep on tap is beyond me. (There are numerous other exceptions, tendrils of the internet happy to go about their business without human interaction: constant up-and-down traffic from Dropbox, iCloud and Backblaze; the App Store keeping things up to date; Adobe things doing whatever it is that they do.)
It is Wednesday and I am offline. I have a go at staring into space. I used to be quite good at this. It was very nineties. But now it feels unfamiliar, disconcerting. As the twitchiness of inactivity abates, my mind clears a little, makes room for thought. I ponder what my son – a digital native – would make of this analogue holiday. I'm reminded of a quote by William Gibson: “Our children will find our distinction between the real and the virtual a rather quaint notion” … or something along those lines. Or maybe it was JG Ballard? Without being able to Google it, I have no way to verify who said what. My memory has been outsourced, all acquired knowledge and trivial tidbits shipped off to a server in the desert.
It is Thursday and I am offline. And fine. I receive a text message from a concerned friend – Is everything okay? Where are you? What's wrong? It's good to know that somebody has noticed my absence.
It is Friday and I am scared and confused. I feel like a misplaced time traveller, sent back to a more innocent time … or perhaps sent forward, lacking the necessary tools to properly appreciate the marvels of this future age. Either way, I am disconnected from the world around me. With no news feeds or zeitgeisty chitter-chatter to keep me up to speed with the events of the day, I'm in the dark about all the latest impending wars, cat memes and conscious uncouplings. I venture outside to find me a newspaper from a shop, only to be met with the headline “UK’S FATTEST WOMAN EATS FRIDGE AND DIES”. Without an immediate opportunity to comment or share, I have no idea what to do with this information. My mind is left to boggle in solitude.
It is Saturday and I am offline. I delve further into The End of Absence, a rare occasion in which a book has my undivided attention. I'm not telling anyone on Twitter that I'm reading it; I'm not dipping into my inbox; I'm not Googling tangential thoughts inspired by the text. It's just me and the words. Good words they are too. Harris has included a glossary of terms relating to how we live now (much like the cultural tropes categorised in the footnotes of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, a book from a simpler time). He talks of “phone burrows”, “flash card confessionals” and “cloud faith”. The most pertinent to my self-imposed digital abstinence: “Going Walden – the often ill-conceived decision to live without connective technologies for a period of time in order to cleanse the spirit.”
It is Sunday and I'd really like to not be offline now please. I'm done. My spirit is fine. I want back in. Don't make me endure any more of these empty moments. Take me away from all this … dearth. I'll only check emails once a day. I won't tweet every unfiltered observation that springs to mind. I'll watch films without keeping one eye on IMDb. I'll be good.
It is Monday and I am online. I have survived. Woolly parental duties and the daily plonk of mail on my electronic doormat aside, I haven't been online for a week. If I am to be one of the last to understand and appreciate absence, this holiday in the real world has felt surprisingly precious. And I'm happy to report that I’m still capable of some quality offline daydreaming. I'd forgotten quite how enjoyable idleness can be. But now I have a lot of catching up to do – scrawled notes are scattered about the place, reminders of thoughts and queries that sprung to mind and couldn't be explored further. A week of internet displaced to this morning.
So, what are cats up to these days? Tell me EVERYTHING.
Written for MacUser