A week without the worldwide web
The iPhone’s 3G is off, the Wi-Fi is shut down and my flamboyantly sadistic 19-year-old son has taken custody of my iPad for the next week. Out comes the network cable and I draft an automatic reply for email messages. As the witching hour approaches, I bid farewell to my 200,000-odd followers on Twitter: “Internet addiction check-up. Off-line for a week from tomorrow. Be in touch”.
The first, less than encouraging, responses are include: “All the best! I reckon it’d be easier to give up smoking.” “I give you two days, tops.” “Keep some methadone handy. You never know”. “I lasted 26 minutes, long enough to go on to Facebook and tell everyone I couldn’t do it”.
Day one. I wake up and instead of checking my mail and glancing at the news online, I look at photos from a recent trip to Tamil Nadu. The main thing – as I tell my nearest and dearest – is to ignore the iPad making eyes at me from the kitchen table. The family smiles in sympathy. Daddy’s got a difficult week ahead. Don’t rub him up the wrong way.
By nine, I’m ready to do something out of the ordinary. I pop out to the newsstand in the square, buy a paper and read it. “What’s so strange about that?” I hear you ask. “You’re a columnist. You read the papers, don’t you?” Well yes, but a bit at a time, through the day. Not in one voracious, early-morning session.
I resolve to keep busy to blot out the web’s siren song. I make five appointments in Milan. As I move around the city, unencumbered and uninformed, my hand keeps drifting into my iPhone pocket to check for emails. Internet, I conclude, is a matter of habitual gestures. Only six days left: I might just make it.
The second day gets off to a bad start. Everyone wants to send me crucial emails. I know this because some of them phone and others text. Back to 1992! Soon, I’ll start seeing things. Like Oasis.
A burgeoning – psychosomatic? – headache means I get little work done. The euphoria has gone and halfway through the day I realise I’m on edge – not least because my son has done a good job of hiding the iPad. It’s harder to do any work. I have to dig out a biography for an interview but I can’t. Wikipedia and LinkedIn are off-limits. I want to check how to spell an American town’s name in preparation for a trip to the States. Normally, I’d Google it but that is off limits. I reach for an atlas. Reassuringly the town is there.
Day three: This morning, I spent 10 minutes watching Kiss Me Kate! (musical, USA, 1953) on TV. Not a good sign. Theoretically, the weekend is the easiest part of my crash digital diet. Deadlines are further apart, emails are fewer and friends have other things to do. There’s an article in the Italian edition of Wired that says Web addiction affects the brain: “Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that an inability to tear yourself away from internet alters the structure of certain parts of the brain (like the orbital-frontal region and anterior callous cingulum)”. I wonder how my callous cingulum is doing.
Day four, Sunday. In the quiet of the weekend, the family intensifies its surveillance (“Where are you going?” “To my office”. “There’s a computer. I’m coming with you, to be on the safe side.”). At first, these exchanges amused me but now they are starting to grate. I detect delight in preventing me from getting things done but no solidarity.
Day five. Monday is a challenge. Having cogitated over the weekend, people are poised to project their thoughts into cyberspace. What is new is that I can’t glean the thoughts. As soon as I wake up, I flick on the TV for the headlines from teletext – teletext! – and wait for the on-the-hour bulletin. Let’s be honest: this is a stress test that banks would baulk at.
Some benefits are emerging. I’m less easily distracted and my concentration has improved. A chunk of cerebral RAM has been freed up. I am realising how emails influence mood by continually shuttling in unexpected information. For five days, I’ve been doing less but I reckon I’ve done it better.
Tuesday and two days to go. I am in Rome and feeling in good shape. I text (it has been a nightmare for my colleagues), read the papers over breakfast in the hotel and, for the first time in decades, observe the road to Fiumicino. At the Milan check-in desk, two of us are not fiddling with an iPhone or Blackberry or Android: your correspondent and a toddler. An American paper announces: “The new mantra for tech firms: All things to all people, all day.” Google, Facebook and the rest no longer seek to enrich our days but to “own our every waking moment”. Worrying, but not till Thursday.
Wednesday is the final day of the experiment and I am vaguely perturbed. Why am I not psychologically devastated by a week’s cyber-abstinence? It is curious, I reflect as the light fades in a turquoise Lombard sky and my unusual week draws to a close. I feel a bit like Herman Melville’s Bartleby (“I would prefer not to”). There are questions that need to be answered. Do you adjust to deprivation quite so quickly? Am I turning into a Luddite? And, more important: where’s my iPad, son?