Going Offline

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on June 25, 2007.
In the middle of the night, on the Thursday before Holy Week this year, my internet service provider went out of business, quietly and without warning. I checked my email before going to bed, and when I got up the next morning, my computer wouldn’t connect to the internet. At work later that morning I discovered no website at the old url; a phone call connected me to a simple message: “your internet service provider is out of business. Have a nice day.”

Here is a shocking question for someone accustomed to seamless connectivity: what do you do when you lose your ability to surf the web, to send and receive emails, to participate in the electronic age?

In the case of my family, for the time being anyway, the answer has been nothing. We decided not to find another internet service provider. At first this was because my family’s internet service disappeared on the eve of Holy Week, when a pastor has little time to do anything but work and breathe. Then we put off getting connected because we live in a condominium community whose homeowner’s association was exploring the possibility of getting wireless internet access for all of the community, but when that plan was put on hold, my wife and I decided that we actually like not having internet access in our home.

Without the ability to go online, we’re doing more of the off-line activities that bring us joy. We talk to each other more than we did when one of us was constantly checking email. We’re more attentive to our children. We have more time to do things that make us happy— like read and knit and listen to baseball on the radio.

This isn’t to say that my family doesn’t appreciate the benefits of email and the web. I am privileged to have a day job that allows me the freedom to check my personal email at work. When I need to or want to, I can stay in my office late or over my lunch break to maintain my website or to shop online. When I’m not at work I can visit any of a number of local coffee shops where the wireless connection is free and the Java is well-caffeinated. We don’t need to access the internet at home.

I don’t mean to preach; I know that not everyone can live in an internet-free zone. These kinds of decisions must be made individually, given the needs and preferences that each of us possesses. When we lost our internet service, my wife and I were able to ask if having an onramp to the information superhighway in our home improved our lives. It didn’t, so we have chosen to remain disconnected.

And I remain happy with our decision to go offline. On the morning when I wrote this essay, I sat outside drinking coffee made from home-roasted beans watching the early summer solstice sunlight dapple the poplars that surround my back patio. The sound of an urban stream’s running water mixed with the songs of wild and domestic birds to serenade my contemplation as I wondered that such beauty and tranquility could exist in an inner-city neighborhood beset with poverty, gang violence, and graffiti. I did wish that I had had a cigarette, but no amount of broad band connectivity could have improved on the beauty of the morning. In fact, on other mornings of similar glory in the not too distant past, I might have been checking my email.

6 thoughts on “Going Offline

  1. Ben,

    Somehow I am off your list to receive your column in my e-mail each Monday. It causes me to have to check it through my bookmark! I don’t want to miss anything. I was interested to learn from last week’s column that your dad is a writer, too.

    Claudia

  2. Claudia,

    Thanks for the post. I’ll check my self-promotion list to make sure you haven’t been dropped (as some people have, for resaons beyond my ken). However, I’ve been on vacation for the last two weeks and haven’t sent out a mailing.

    My father, John M. Daniel is, indeed a writer. His most recent mystery novels are The Poet’s Funeral and Vanity Fire.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  3. Ben,

    I lived without internet for the better part of a year in 2006. Like you, I had access to the web at work and there was also a coffee shop with free wireless within walking distance of my apartment. At that time I didn’t have a land line telephone, a television set or DVD player either (although I did watch a few DVDs on my laptop, I’ll admit). I got a lot of reading done that year.

    But now I am really really glad to have internet at home once again. Home is a much better place to do all the non-work stuff I do online(banking, paying bills, chatting with friends who live on different continents, or reading my brother’s weekly column).

    I’m just saying, I know what you mean about enjoying life at home web-free, whether this phase lasts ten days or ten years. Anyway, if you ever do get wireless in your complex, you may find that you can have it all–checking your email AND sitting on the back patio enjoying the beautiful California morning.

  4. Ben:
    Lovely reflection. I have been spending a lot of time trying to get away from the internet, television, and anything else that distracts me from the world right here lately, and it is honestly very difficult to do when you have the access right there. It is admirable and even a bit inspiring that it is still possible for people to get away from the internet and feel not cut off but rather more connected to the world around them… a good lesson.

  5. Anna,

    I hope I have the discipline, once I get online again, to ignore the web and email when I don’t need it. But you may have gotten all of the family’s electronic discipline genes.

    Sarah,

    Thanks for the good word.

    Ben

  6. Having just returned from a 10 day holiday I was overwhelmed with messages. However, they were there and waited for me! I don’t think business and commerce can survive without the internet…just don’t become a slave to it.

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