Friday, July 8, 2011

No more computer: my one-hour rule

I've had one sublime mentoring moment in my life. It came on my FOOT May training trip in 2008. His name was Joe. I looked up to him as soon as I got to know him: He could talk NBA (and apparently was sick at basketball), had worked in finance, had an older girlfriend. He was also half-Asian, which might explain everything.

On the trail, our group carried no technology save our cell phones, buried at the bottom of our packs and relegated to emergency-use only status. The setting was the perfect backdrop for Joe's story of how he gave up his laptop. As we hiked through the Connecticut wilderness, he told me how he managed: In lecture, he took notes by hand. For essays, he used the Morse computer cluster. To read sports news, he popped onto public terminals between classes. By keeping The Internet away from the unstructured time in his day, Joe had become more productive, and, it seems, happier, offline.

I was struck by the idea. In high school, I'd regularly spend 6 hours a day on my family's computer, checking my fantasy sports teams and chatting on AIM. My first year in college, I spent roughly 4 hours a day online, engaging in activities -- Facebook, ESPN -- that I unconsciously marked as inevitable. Joe's spartan online diet made me realize there was a way to extricate myself from the Internet.

5 days after the FOOT trip, I flew to China. I left my laptop behind. It was the best decision I made all summer. Without a computer chaining me to my room, my social life burgeoned. It wasn't just that I saved pockets of time before dinner and after class; being off the computer begat an instinctive tendency to seek out interactions with others. The 5 minutes I would have spent online  instead turned into a 5 minute conversation with an acquaintance, a subsequent invitation to lunch, and plans to go out this weekend.

When I returned to school for sophomore year, I vowed to continue my online asceticism. I locked my yellow laptop under my bed, and, later, even cancelled my text messaging plan. But back at Yale, the combination of peer expectations and tempting accessibility ruined my plans. I would sit down in the Berkeley computer cluster to finish a small assignment or complete a chore, and, before I knew it, would gorge myself for an hour on sports and Facebook before even opening Microsoft Word. Sometimes, after satiating my hunger, I'd forget what I'd come to do.

The addiction wasn't just to information; it was also to a self-perpetuating recording of information. Hanging out with friends in real life was ephemeral; once the conversation was over, I couldn't replay it. Talking to someone on Gchat meant etching a permanent record, one I could revisit as many times as possible.

I eventually capitulated. My laptop came back junior and senior year with a half-hearted compromise: I would use K9, a website blocker, to limit my usage. Being the resourceful fella I was, I managed to get around the self-control mechanism. I eventually convinced myself I simply needed a computer with me: to stream music on Grooveshark, to write my YDN articles, to access information, to respond to time-sensitive email. No doubt I would feel worthless after waking up from an online reverie, but try as I might to take steps to stop my computer usage, I couldn't shake the habit, and a part of me thinks it was because I just didn't care enough.

After graduation, I moved to New York, where, without public access computers, my laptop turned from convenient to crucial. My second weekend there, I spent an entire Sunday inside my room, surfing the web. The next week, it happened again. Blame it on the comfortable, alluring promise of the online world. OkCupid, New York Times, Facebook: I had everything I needed to survive. But when I went to sleep those nights, I never wanted it to happen again.

Being outside leads to experiences outside; being online leads to time online. But whereas a night or afternoon out leaves me flushed with a groundswell of humanity, spending a day inside pushes me deeper down the damp, musty well of online interaction. Being outside expands my vision; being online narrows it. What I learned during my summer in Beijing, and my summer in New York, was that offline time has a multiplier effect that isn't replicable in the solitary, walled-in gardens of the Internet.

So. I realize I need to be kept accountable for my time online. So here's the deal. I'm imposing a 1-hour-a-week rule on this damn machine. I'm going to be on the Internet for no more than one hour. The only exception is, so I can keep writing and editing these posts. I'm convinced the human race was happier before the Internet. Less productive, and maybe more bored, but definitely happier.

Call it one of my moods, but this is happening. Now. Bye bye, online world. We'll stay in touch, infrequently.

1 comment:

  1. haha. I don't believe you'll be able to do it. Hope this is salt on your wound to keep you motivated. =P