Philosophy

Closing the Firehose: How a Week Offline Changed My Outlook

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 27, 2009

Author's note: this essay is simply a personal musing into a recent experience, so please don't feel obliged to read it, particularly if you come to RTH for urbanism as such. However, for RTH readers who are technically inclined, it may provide some food for thought.

Aaron Swartz is a young, sensitive, fiercely intelligent writer and web developer known for amazing achievements at an early age.

Aaron is a classic wunderkind. He established notoriety (at least in Nerdistan) at a tremendously young age for co-authoring the specification for RSS web page syndication - at age 14. As a teenager, he also worked with Lawrence Lessig on the Creative Commons project.

Soon after, he launched a startup (one of the first to receive VC funding from Paul Graham's Y Combinator fund) that allows users to create and edit websites easily through the browser. He later refined the idea into jottit, a website for posting quick notes.

In 2006, Aaron created web.py, a simple, lightweight web application development framework for the Python programming language. He became involved in the nascent social networking site reddit when its developers decided to re-write it in Python and use web.py.

He ended up being asked to leave the company after it was bought by Conde Nast Publications (the publisher that owns Wired) when the transition from running a startup to working in an office proved too hard for him to bear.

Since then, he has worked on the Open Library project as its technical director, is involved with Watchdog, a project promoting open, accountable government, and has written several influential and widely-read essays on his blog.

Aaron has accomplished more in the years between 14 and 23 than most people do in a lifetime. I think part of what fascinates me about him is that he seems to be so much more productive than I can even imagine, let alone manage - and I expect I'm already past my productivity peak in terms of creating content. Yet he has always (to borrow a phrase from Stephen King) seemed like a powerful compass swinging back and forth, trying to find a direction.

Reading his essays and following his career, it's hard not to detect a simmering frustration, loneliness and dissatisfaction running beneath Aaron's ongoing contributions, projects and journalism. So I wasn't particularly surprised, earlier this year, when he announced his intention to spend the month of June offline to try and find himself.

The Internet has kept me connected to people - as a child, all my best friends were online; as an adult, all my coworkers are. My jobs do not take place in an office; they take place over email, where time and place do not matter. The upside is that I can go anywhere and still do them. The downside is I cannot get away from them.

I need to take a break. My life has become entangled with technology and pressure that I hardly know any other way of life.

He concluded: "I want to be human again."

I read this with interest, but of course the mad rush of data pouring out of my internet connection blew it away before I could do anything with this information. It was only by chance that I happened across his follow-up essay, published on July 24:

I used to think of myself as just an unhappy person: a misanthrope, prone to mood swings and eating binges, who spends his days moping around the house in his pajamas, too shy and sad to step outside. But that's not how I was offline. I loved people - everyone from the counter clerk to the old friends I bumped into on the street.

And I loved to go for walks and exercise in the gym and - even though there was no one around to see me - groom. Yes, groom: shower and shave and put on nice clothes and comb my hair and clean up my nails and so on, all things a month ago I would have said went against my very nature, things I never did before voluntarily.

But most of all, I felt not just happy, but firmly happy - solid, is the best way I can put it. I felt like I was in control of my life instead of the other way around, like its challenges just bounced off me as I kept doing what I wanted. Normally I feel buffeted by events, a thousand tiny distractions nagging at the back of my head at all times. Offline, I felt in control of my own destiny. I felt, yes, serene.

The essay was infuriatingly short on details about how he spent his offline time, but Swartz focused instead on his growing awareness of how unhappy his hyper-connected online life had made him, an awareness that only crystallized with the benefit of sharp contrast to whatever it is he did once he unplugged.

I suppose I was particularly receptive to his message because I had also recently returned from a period spent offline, albeit shorter, less dramatic and incidental rather than deliberate. Earlier this month I spent a little over a week at a cottage up in the Muskokas with my family and close friends. The cottage has no phone, let alone internet, and the closest newspaper vendor was at the convenience store a kilometre or two up the road. (On a couple of occasions someone brought a newspaper back to the cottage, but I couldn't bring myself to read it.)

It was by no means low-tech - we mastered the art of the the frozen margarita, the mp3 player played a seemingly endless collection of grime and baile funk through the cottage stereo, and we had at least two laptops on hand (no wifi) - but the cottage wasn't connected to any information/communication networks.

It was bliss.

I especially noticed a curious experience of the passage of time. The common assumption about time is that it passes quickly when you're having fun and drags when you're bored or frustrated. In this case, time passed slowly in a happy drift of relaxation.

It was uncanny: we would spend what felt like several hours jamming with available instruments (two guitars and a flute), only to discover that it was still mid-afternoon - with plenty of time for a leisurely swim off the dock - rather than deep into dinner time.

Over a period of a few days, I read a 900 page book and still managed to find time for extended, in-depth conversations, dog walking, a long bike ride into town, two trips to a local farm, and so on.

What happened when I got back for a second week of day trips around our house is interesting: I just couldn't muster up any enthusiasm for my usual online haunts. Why read the news aggregator du jour when I could dig into the next book? Why update my Twitter profile when I would take a stroll down by the waterfront? Why bother catching up on over 300 emails when my son was eager to hear the next chapter of The Hobbit?

It was a few nagging responsibilities that got me back into the online swing. As I reluctantly reconnected, time seemed to speed up again to the usual blur of disconnected images and themes to which I was clearly accustomed before going away. I'm back to doing my usual activities, but like Aaron, I find it all feels strangely hollow - even this essay.

If I don't take some kind of tangible lifestyle decision out of this experience and the slow epiphany that ran through it, I fear it will have been for nothing.

I don't think it would be practical or even beneficial for me to turn off. There are just too many things I really want to accomplish - including my involvement with RTH, which I find deeply gratifying - for me to turn my back on computing and the internet.

However, I think I need to get better at somehow reducing my exposure to the sheer, full-spectrum flow of stuff - particularly the trivialities - that consumes so much of my time and leaves the rest of my time feeling cramped and rushed.

I'm not sure about the best way to do that, whether through some combination of technology (ha-ha) and lifestyle choice or some other approach, but I don't want to lose all track of the delightful calm that I managed to experience during our media fast at the cottage. Technology has a logic and a will of its own, and I worry about the long-term effects of bending my own habits and thinking processes to accommodate the technology with which I have surrounded myself.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. Ryan also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 27, 2009 at 17:08:04

I'm totally with you man. Our week at a cottage up in Quebec was amazing. I look forward to it every year, knowing that there is no cell phone service, no internet. Heck, no regular phone.

I too have the same feeling upon returning home with little interest to be online.
I think it's vital that people give themselves a break from the web to do more useful things with their time. I used to watch too much TV several years ago. Getting rid of cable was one of the best things I've ever done. I rarely watch TV now, and am not missing a thing.
Too many non-essentials vie for our attention in this world. The most important things are sitting right under our noses - family, friends, hobbies, the outdoors, reading etc......

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By JonC (registered) | Posted July 27, 2009 at 17:35:32

Time limits. Only be online 9-5 or 12-2 or whatever you need. Especially in the summer, assuming that happens sometime this year.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 27, 2009 at 20:45:29

I'm sorry to hear that you're twittering!

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted July 28, 2009 at 07:36:46

Hear Hear!

My vacation starts next week and I look forward to not spending most of my waking time staring at a glowing rectangles.

http://www.theonion.com/content/news/rep...

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By synxer (registered) | Posted July 28, 2009 at 09:29:03

It's nice to read from a very successful person in our beehive that isn't constantly telling us how amazing they are by blogging about every single tiny user enhancement.

Sorry. That last bit was aimed at Jason Fried.

Seriously, though. Good post, Ryan.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:28:35

That last bit was aimed at Jason Fried.

Obligatory related link:

http://twitter.com/_why/status/164018023...

And knowing that link is why I need to balance my online activities. :(

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By synxer (registered) | Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:34:32

VERY funny.

Second obligatory related link:

Guess the compound word used to describe this image: http://www.loudthinking.com/images/heads...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:46:24

Guess the compound word used to describe this image

I'm going to guess that the two roots of the compound word you have in mind are either "R" and "S" or "D" and "B", depending on how invective you're feeling just now.

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By synxer (registered) | Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:49:11

What does the R and S stand for? :)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2009 at 10:55:35

Rockstar!

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By Yeahbut (anonymous) | Posted August 12, 2009 at 13:18:26

It's the golden age of communications and that's cool, but communicating about stuff isn't the same as doing stuff.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 12:47:38

www.slate.com/id/2224932/

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2009 at 14:00:48

Thanks, highwater, for a fascinating link. IMHO this was far superior to the insipid Atlantic article ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?") linked therein, which I read when it was published and again over the weekend (on a link from someone else) with a measure of disgust at its sheer speculative curmudgeonry.

This piece, by contrast, seems far more solidly grounded in plausible empirical research rather than mere intuition (intuition is invaluable, but as a cue to start researching, not a self-confirming end in itself).

It also resonates with me at a more personal level than the Atlantic piece.

Here's why: I've long suspected I may have a mild (i.e. manageable) form of bipolar disorder, in that I go through two- and three-week bouts of manic productive output fueled by only a few hours' sleep a night, followed by a kind of funk in which I'm not actually depressed, but just tired and hugely unmotivated.

(Careful observers of this site may even notice a cyclical rise and fall in the number of articles and blog entries I post here.)

Anyway, last week I was in cottage country again, and I noticed two things:

  1. Though I left in the midst of what I'll call a hypomanic phase, as soon as I unplugged and left, my hypomania seemed to dissipate almost instantly. Indeed, I was astonished at just how much I slept when I was away - drifting off to sleep at 10:00 PM and waking up nice and refreshed at 8:00 AM the next morning.

  2. My fervent craving to consume information and produce stuff (articles, software applications, revised programming code) just collapsed. I was perfectly content to enjoy a relaxed ad hoc schedule of walking and cycling, fishing off the dock, cruising around the lake, sitting in the shade and trying without much success to master the pentatonic blues scale on my guitar.

This made me start to wonder if my bipolar cycle is strictly internal in origin or is actually in some way triggered by my cognitive environment, with the crash following the high as a function of sheer exhaustion - like that rats that would keep pressing the lever "until they collapsed" - followed by a renewed high once I catch up on rest.

Could my supposed hypomania actually be a repeated instance of insatiable "seeking" behaviour? When I actually "catch" what I'm seeking - a surprising discovery, a new essay, a new software function - it doesn't satiate my craving for more but actually increases it through the promise of still more serendipitous rewards.

As the article puts it:

"Actually all our electronic communication devices - email, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter - are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one. Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably - as email, texts, updates do - we get even more carried away."

I live, in large part, for the discovery of unexpected information - surprises that challenge my assumptions about how the world works. Here I use "surprise" in the same sense that Paul Graham used it in a recent essay on essay writing:

"Surprises are things that you not only didn't know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they're the most valuable sort of fact you can get. They're like a food that's not merely healthy, but counteracts the unhealthy effects of things you've already eaten."

http://www.paulgraham.com/essay.html

To a certain extent I've tried to cultivate this as a countervail against the human inclination toward confirmation bias (only paying attention to information that further confirms what one already believes), but the fact is that I love surprising information.

It's like when I was a kid and would come home from Hallowe'en with a bag of treats that I would then sort and categorize and then resort and recategorize along as many different dimensions as I could come up with. When I discover new information, I get to go back and resort and recategorize my existing information (or as Keynes famously put it, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?").

This insatiable drive for novelty - which I try to leverage into an insatiable drive for new and better information, even (or especially) if it's surprising - may well be at the root of my apparent hypomania.

The question is: what, if anything, should I do about it?

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By joejoe (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 15:50:44

"what, if anything, should I do about it?"

Buy a cottage :)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted August 17, 2009 at 15:54:24

Buy a cottage

Arrgh! Between the financial burden and the obligation to drive 3+ hours at regular intervals to "enjoy it" (read: maintain it), the thought of owning a cottage sends chills down my spine.

Now a sailboat, on the other hand...

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By Balance-beam (anonymous) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 15:59:56

@Ryan it's all about balance. You need to train your brain not to keep chasing the dopamine stimulus over and over again without a break. Try meditation - it's a great way to discipline your mind not to run away on you.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted August 17, 2009 at 16:52:36

www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNtYkRj4D6A

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