(Not Really) Cutting the Cord

Monday, April 09, 2012

A Canadian blogger reports on his recent decision to forgo a home Internet connection, based on the huge amount of time he realized he had been wasting online after a couple of work stints in Cuba:

I suddenly found myself with a lot of time on my hands. It was very, very different. I read War and Peace in a week. In fact, I read about 40 books while I was in Cuba. Real books, long novels. Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov... I swear they weren't all Russian. I have not read that many books in the same time period since.

I also watched several full TV series. The Wire, Dexter, My Name is Earl. I watched a lot of movies.

And I had plenty of time to explore the country, meet new people, and learn Spanish.

Basically, the internet had been sucking up over 30% of my leisure time. I barely missed it (I still had some access at work), and my quality of life improved. [minor format edits]
The writer makes the excellent point that too many people "haven't thought through how [they] should use" the Internet and have allowed it to become a sort of default activity. So far, so good, but then he goes further:
You can try methods to "limit" your access, but then you're drawing down your limited supplies of willpower. Whereas if the internet is simply not there, you have no choice but to do something else.
However, he still uses the Internet, via a cafe near his home, so what he is doing is limiting (not ending) his access to the Internet. What makes his method work so well is that it makes using the Internet troublesome enough that there's no danger of it becoming his default activity during unfocused moments. It is worth noting as well that what precipitated his "experiment" was an event that made him aware of how he was using time by contrast. (He even suggests using the tool RescueTime as a way of seeing how much time his readers spend online.) This writer has come up with what I think is one viable strategy for rescuing oneself from the ravages of a bad habit, but I hardly see it as the only strategy.

The root problem here is allowing oneself to drift, and the Internet certainly can make that easy: it often "feels like" work and provides a tempting mental distraction. But what is drifting? It's a failure to keep purpose at the forefront of one's awareness, and I see this writer's extra step (having to leave home) for going online as a way to bring himself back to thinking purposefully. (Do I really need to make this trip?) Having a purposeful context for using the Internet is, I am sure, a big part of why the writer doesn't find himself in the cafe hours later, wondering where his day went. He has his eye-opening experience in Cuba, too, as a reminder of what he can achieve when he purposefully picks his work and leisure activities. That is, he doesn't need willpower to keep his Internet time short because he has an incentive to do so. Finally, the writer's trip (or the use of a tool, like RescueTime), serves to bring the time into conscious awareness: He is thinking about what he is doing, and the time involved.

The arrival of our baby daughter has caused me to see the problem of aimless Internet surfing from on opposite time perspective: I simply couldn't waste hours on the Internet now, even if I wanted to. Once upon a time, I would often quickly check email or news, but not any more. I have way too much to do, and have become so much more efficient in my use of time now that I wonder what the hell I was doing before the baby came along. I still have room for improvement from a time management perspective, but even with so little time, I, too, have found myself enjoying more television and reading more books (though hardly so many) than I did before.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Of course the same arguments apply to reading or watching TV - also activities which make it very easy to drift. Any activity, where you are directed or entertained by a source outside yourself, can encourage complacency. This is not to say you should never watch TV. Obviously letting yourself become immersed in a good story has its benefits and pleasures. Even in these cases, the more active a choice you can make the better. Never just turn on the TV and surf – (or the internet for that matter). I only use it when there is a specific show on that I want to watch.

This is one reason why reading is typically better than TV. There is usually more choice, more sophistication and more thinking involved.

The best solution for drifting (next to having a child of course) is to direct your time towards a fulfilling and purposeful hobby and let that guide your TV or internet or reading etc. Do not just drift through the bookstore hoping to find something to interest you – although I do admit so sometimes wavering on this principle in front of the history section.

I like writing, gardening; activities which at the end of the day you have something concrete to show for it. I suspect blogging is similar. You write; you analyze; you get comments to think about and you have something at the end as an object of pride.

Gus Van Horn said...

"Do not just drift through the bookstore hoping to find something to interest you – although I do admit so sometimes wavering on this principle in front of the history section."

But are you really wavering on the principle -- or allowing yourself to explore? I have made some of my best mental connections when allowing myself to daydream, for lack of a better word, during walks or drives, or when enjoying a less-than-demanding leisure activity. I think there is a valid and useful distinction to be made between drifting and not being in a state of laser-like focus at some given moment.

Steve D said...

Agreed. I was using the term 'wavering on this principle' more as a lose expression than a literal statement. Of course, I was still focused; I was in front of the history section actively pulling books and flipping through the pages, not wandering aimlessly through book store waiting for first shiny cover to catch my eye. Exploring the books (or just typing the term ‘ancient history’ on Amazon allows you to discover new things you never considered before.

They key word in your above paragraph is ‘laser-like’. I think there are different types and degrees of focus. I can think of differences between my book store experience; reading a novel, reading a scientific article, actively performing an experiment, going on a date, teaching my son, etc. They involve at least the direction, breadth, and object of your focus. This seems like an interesting subject to explore in the future.

Mike said...

First, it's surprising to say that increased TV watching is a positive benefit of reduced websurfing! O mores o tempora!!! But that's really just a low jab for laughs, since in fact there's some very good TV in existence.

Second, I recently moved abroad for work and have much reduced Internet access myself, and I have to agree with all of this. It's surprising how much time can be eaten up just in loading browsers and the like—I went online at home one evening to pay a bill and found it took 16 minutes! While there are some blogs I still follow daily at work, yours and John Cook's, the others have been shunted off to early Sunday afternoons, even The Onion, and quite often I simply forget about them when I do allow myself to stroll around the Internet. Instead I've enjoyed the chance to read books I didn't have or take the chance to read before, and I have to say that for me at least it's been a largely unconscious, painless process.

Gus Van Horn said...

It's a high compliment that you follow my blog, especially in your new context! (I joke with myself that I don't follow my own blog anymore.)

The telly is about to get pared down. One of my last frontiers is reclaiming naptime from the baby. Currently, most of my TV watching comes from the fact that she won't take naps without being held -- and it's too awkward to use anything besides a smart phone or a remote. We finally have the beginnings of a plan in place to fix the problem...

Funny that we're both up now. Consider my effective time zone to be that of the Azores.

Off to the shower and the weekly house-straightening while the baby is still asleep.