Off the Grid

by mark neely

According to a study done at Ball State U., where I teach, the average American is looking at some sort of screen—iPhone, computer monitor, television, etc.—for an average of 8 ½ hours per day, and often using two or more screens at a time (e.g. tweeting epithets at Chris Bosh while watching the NBA finals).

Much of that time, of course, is spent right here on the Internet. I’m no Luddite (I’m writing this on a blog for Pete’s sake), and I exalt the wonderful anarchy and global sweep of the Web, but I also wish I spent less time there. Some days I feel my brain getting duller with each passing hour.

There’s some science behind this feeling. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr pools together a boatload of research on Web use, and concludes that the Net promotes “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” It also gives us “the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

Hurried thinking, cursory reading, and superficial learning being antithetical to the kind of reading and writing I aspire to, I decided to go offline for the month of July. I didn’t quite keep my promise—once I had to download some important forms and once I took care of some pressing business at work, but all told I spent only two hours online in July—no email, no social media, no websites of any kind.

Unfortunately, I didn’t become a genius overnight, but it was a different life. I wrote and read more last month than in any 30 day period I can remember. I felt the heft of an actual dictionary. I opened a few cookbooks, which had sat idle and dusty on my shelves for many years. I rode bikes and played basketball with my kids. I flushed a family of turkeys from their roost on a morning run. I even napped a couple times. The days seemed to stretch out endlessly. I didn’t worry about who liked what on Facebook, or my Amazon ranking (always dismal), or Paula Deen.

I also missed out. A few writing opportunities came and went (the world of the Web moves fast). The lives (and vacation photos) of friends and relatives went on without me. As did social media—all its flaws, yes, but also its interesting banter and wit and controversy. I got woefully behind on various work tasks that came over the transom while I was away. I missed the news of a great friend’s next book!

I need to be connected most of the time to do my job—but my experiment proved to me that I’d be happier, more productive, and probably smarter if I spent less time online. Now I just have to figure out how to make that happen. The Net is a hard beast to master. Almost everyone I know has pledged to curb their internet usage at one time or another. Even fervent defenders seem to sense we’re all hitting this pipe a bit too often.

I know the Web is simply a new technology for disseminating information, just as the codex was a new technology a thousand years ago, but I’ve never heard anyone say they wished they read fewer books. I wonder why.