Living life offline

Cumulatively, I’ve lived almost a year of the past decade without Internet, but I have no claim to being an unplugged heroine.

I am the person to call if you need to unearth a cached webpage or reverse-image search a prospective Bumble date. I have a serious appetite for content ranging from machine learning forums to celebrity gossip of dubious veracity coupled with a terrier-like determination to mine the Internet for the information I need. I am so invested in Jane the Virgin that I’ve taken to following the hashtag on Instagram.

Likely, I would not have tried an Internetless life had I not wound up working a three-month stint in Amsterdam, a notoriously difficult place to find short-term housing. A four-degrees-removed friend-of-a-friend allowed me to rent a room in a small village outside of Amsterdam. Wi-Fi wasn’t part of the deal.

I had Internet at the institute where I worked, so over my lunch break, I sat in the atrium and took care of personal Internet business. I downloaded the piano score to the Amélie soundtrack to play on the piano in the evenings and pulled audio lectures to my offline iPod to listen to during my commute.

I relied more on my intuition.

On a practical level, elements of the unencumbered offline life surprised me. As a dedicated food blog follower, I found a strange sort of freedom when I didn’t need to source recipe ingredients at the grocery store. Instead, I lived on bread rolls and cumin-spiced Gouda and whatever fruit looked good at the market. With Gmail offline (a handy traveling trick that allows you to access Google Drive documents offline), I drafted long emails to friends without notification distractions. When I went with my labmates for Indonesian food after work, I didn’t feel the need to check the restaurant reviews online first. Without my Saturday morning routine of blog reading, I took my rickety borrowed bike through the dunes to the beach. In those moments, I didn’t miss Internet. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss online maps though. It once took me three hours and a detour through a skate park to get home.)

I relied more on correspondence and conversation. 

Living offline stretched my relationships. I bought a book of postcards at the Van Gogh museum and steadily worked my way through the stack, mailing postcards when I felt a loneliness manifesting like the phantom twitch of a Facebook notification. I threw myself into the relationships around me that have now grown over the better part of a decade. One adventurous, retired Dutch couple invited me for a coffee that has led to a lasting friendship. When my energy didn’t go to an online community, there was no alternative but for it to go to the offline one around me, however unexpected it was.

I came to know my hostess, Tilly, through long conversations spent working puzzles. Tilly became a friend and a mentor for me in a way I could not have anticipated. With a depth of experience working disaster management in the Congo, her conversation and book recommendations irrevocably changed my views on vocation. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I wanted to study the dynamics of a slum using mobile phone data—Tilly’s contacts enabled me to speak with locals who explained the harmful, if unintended consequences, of thoughtless data collection. Would our conversation have ranged to those topics if I had been surrounded by the familiar trappings of online content? I can’t say for sure, but I do think that without the endless expanse of the Internet to search, depths of conversation came more naturally.

I realized the difference between what I consume and what I need.

There’s no inherent merit to living without Internet, but going without can offer an essential perspective. For me, cutting the ethernet cord clarified the difference between the Internet I need and the Internet I can vapidly consume if it is at my fingertips. It showed me the limitations of online community and forced me to accept the wild surprises of the offline one. Crucially, unplugging challenged me to recognize the luxury of being able to function without the Internet, and gave me a broader understanding of issues marginalized groups face surrounding Internet access and data usage.

So, when I moved again, I made a new choice about the Internet, informed by my months without it: I simply never set it up.