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Webbed In: Staying off the Net is an unattainable ideal

Our virtual selves are as real and essential today as a land-line phone connection was a decade ago, learns Atul Dev, when he resolves to live without access to the Internet for a week

Atul Dev  28th Dec 2013

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik design

y understanding of the dichotomous nature of technology is that of a person torn between the charms of seamless connectivity and the redacted form of connections that it offers. I use my devices extensively, for a varied set of purposes. Even though I am aware of the ramifications of "living a digital life", I choose to ignore them. It is downright scary that everything I do is quantified and analysed, but over time I have come to accept and live with it. Okay, so Google may know exactly where I was all day yesterday (and it would know this even if I turned off location access ), but it's also nice enough to help me out every now and then — it'll update me today, for instance, on the traffic situation in the places I visited yesterday, in case I have to go back and revisit any of them again.

I've almost forgotten what life without all this technology is like. So for this edition of Guardian 20, I decided to try living without it altogether, even though the very thought was confounding. Is it at all possible to be completely detached from technology when it is so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives?

Even if I stopped using Google Maps and navigated the city at the mercy of a bystander's directions, there were things that just could not be avoided: filing stories, for instance, or making pages to send to press, or answering phone calls (I don't have a land line — does anyone, anymore?). It just wasn't possible; especially if I had to effectively serve the tasks that I was assigned. So we shifted to a more feasible but equally paralysing alternative — no Internet.

Connectivity, a term used like a religious analogy while discussing the web and its future, has turned into something of a basic need for most of us. I use it for the news, for various reactions on the news on platforms like Twitter, for cricket scores, digging for information, scrolling through my Facebook timeline — mostly for information, but also for a withdrawal from my surroundings. I found myself reaching for my phone in the short empty spaces between coming out of a metro station and finding an auto-rickshaw, or while waiting for my order to reach the table at the coffee shop.

On an ordinary day, given the terrible frequency with which I check my phone, each time I typically have three or four news alerts, a few e-mails and some 'reply' or 'comment' in some conversation thread on Facebook, Twitter or Whatsapp. These notifications then trigger off a series of activities that include replying, saving things to 'read-later', and favourite-ing a witty tweet — by the time I'm done, I've reached my destination, or the coffee is ready, without having noticed the wait.

It serves constructive purposes, of course, but it also gets users addicted to the evasion it offers. Serving as a space where the complicated reasoning of emotional transactions don't matter, and by extension, even seem futile.

Something that I believe is comforting to the Mark Zuckerberg Generation to which I belong, as much as I like to deny it. We don't talk, we chat (with those dreaded emoticons), because it's easier to bail from a conversation that way when we're done. Everything we do is a statement; we project our lives like a movie and see it only through the blue-coloured lens of social-media.

t is not the quality but the immediacy of information that we care about, the continuous flow of news, views and reviews that distracts us from pausing to reflect on the life we're actually living. In the last week, I repeatedly caught myself flipping through the pages of my phone's launcher, scrolling the contact list or changing the wallpaper — all in a desperate attempt to finding substitutes to fill the void left by that running stream of notifications, which was no longer rushing in.

We don’t talk, we chat, because it’s easier to bail from a conversation that way when we’re done. We project our lives like a movie and see it only through the blue-coloured lens of social-media.

It is a new world, as Zadie Smith noted in her New York Review of Books essay about The Social Network, a world customised to match the 'web 2.0 generation' — everything here is formulaic. "They've spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They've been making a world," she writes.

It is not hard to imagine that even these patterns of interaction will evolve into something else entirely in the coming decade, but what can be said with absolute certainty is that technology will play a major role in it. We need to adapt, as Jonathan Foer wrote in his New York Times essay, "being 'anti-technology' is perhaps the only thing more foolish than being unquestioningly 'pro-technology'."

Before turning the data-connections off, I had a fair idea of the things I was going to miss, none of which I expected to be particularly troubling — and none of it was. Except one: the thing I hadn't even thought of till this week came to a close, was how convenient it is to get lost in all this available information when I want to shut out the world around me.

Danny Boyle's cult classic Trainspotting opens with a monologue, in which the protagonist describes his love for heroin. "When you're off it you are suddenly obliged to worry about all sorts of other sh*te...about human relationships and all the things that really don't matter when you've got a sincere and truthful junk habit." That pretty much sums things up, and in the relatively short time I spent without the Internet, it became glaringly obvious how badly I needed the 'kick'.

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