A Year (Mostly) Unplugged

You’ve probably seen the map of Verizon’s 4G coverage area: a map of the United States blanketed in red, a few white splotches of uncovered area, most of it in the rural west. On the East Coast, coverage is virtually total, save for a few pinpricks of white here and there. I spent a year living in one of those pinpricks. It completely changed my relationship to digital technology.

We had been in New York City for ten years. My wife was finishing her dissertation, and I was dutifully climbing the ladder at a job that demanded longer hours with every rung. With our second kid on the way, something needed to change, so we decided to move for a year to an old log house down the road from my parents in rural Virginia. The change was stark: fewer people live in the Town of Pamplin City (its real name) than fit on a subway car in New York.

Verizon service cuts out about five miles from my parents’ place. It had happened for years when we visited. I had gotten used to seeing the bars drop off, until the phone’s desperate search for a signal sucked up so much battery that it died and would remain off for the week or ten days that we tended to visit. So, we canceled our Verizon account and got a plan with US Cellular, a provider you’ve probably never heard of unless you live in the country, where the giant telecoms don’t intrude.

The old house had a tin roof, so even with US Cellular we didn’t get cell service indoors. Basic Internet out there is exorbitant, easily three times what we paid in the city. We could get a wi-fi signal from my parents’ place if we went and sat outside on the porch. Unless it rained. Or was cloudy. Or we had used up my parents’ bandwidth allocation for the month, after which service trickled back down to 14 kbps speeds.

There was broadband in town, a ten-minute drive along gorgeous winding country roads past herds of small black cows and Amish kids playing in their front lawns. You had to have a key to get into the building. My dad has one for his work. I used it once to speak with a client by Skype.

We were, then, for all intents and purposes, unplugged. I don’t think I had realized just how deeply my cell phone had intruded into my life. And that’s the idea, right? It’s hardly a phone any more—it’s a texter, a mini-computer, a camera, an Internet browser, a gaming console, a music player with access to an infinite number of songs. All at once, all of that functionality was gone.

I’m a technoskeptic either by nature or nurture (my siblings, interestingly, share our father’s general antipathy to tech), so I was eager to leave the Internet behind, happy not to twitch any more at phantom cell vibrations in my work-shirt breast pocket. But even for me, it took the strictures of this forced abstinence to change the way I use tech. That, and going from middle management to stay-at-home parent committed to raising analog kids.

If I have a working thesis about our collective relationship to technology it is this: digital tech harnesses our uniquely American mania for work and uses it to further its own ends. Our smart devices enable the office’s exponential micro-demands on our time and our attention. You start by reaching for your phone on Saturday because it might be your boss, who needs to know whether you can do a quick hour of work for his boss, preferably right now. You can do it because you can access your thousand files by logging in remotely.

Rural House

iStock.com / thumb

About that job I left. It was a “good job” by the usual measures. It required some intellectual exertion, a technical background. It had a little bit for the left brain, a little bit for the right. But as apolitical civil servants in the budget office, we responded to the mayor of New York’s needs, and that meant lots of late nights waiting for instructions from VIPs. Plenty of time for shooting the shit with coworkers about TV shows I didn’t watch, an unhealthy number of coffee breaks, the occasional leisurely lunch, and, of course, untold hours scouring the Internet for something, anything, to distract you from the boredom of waiting. Because for some reason it is culturally acceptable to browse Slate all afternoon, but not to sit in your cubicle with a novel. It was the wasted hours (one of the hallmarks of what writer David Graeber calls the bullshit job), the unhealthy dependence on the Internet, that drove me away.

In Pamplin, I read the Internet in snatches, and then, only to catch up on the news (2016-2017 was… let’s call it a big year for politics) and a couple of sports columns I enjoy. For years I had nurtured a little routine of websites I checked first thing in the morning at work, not unlike the way some people move methodically through the Sunday Times, section by section, always in the same order. Disconnected, most of these habits fell away without me having to work at it. They had been my constant companions for a decade and a half, but when I couldn’t get to them easily, I found that they were not missed.

We have reintegrated. We now live in suburban New Jersey. We have broadband and cell phones that can connect to it. Here’s an irony: because we kept the US Cellular service, now that we are back in the warm blanket of Verizon coverage, my phone is frequently unconnected from the world. Half a thought to check the Cavs-Warriors score? I’ll have to wait until I get home.

My Internet habits have not bounced back. I work as a freelancer, so I get all of my work online. Without broadband, I’d go hungry. But now, with the kids taking up most of my day, there isn’t any time to kill, so there’s not really any need to browse the bowels of Slate’s advice column. Plus, as any parent with young kids will tell you, the moment you divert your attention from them for any reason (say, to use the bathroom), they will let you know loudly that they want it back. There is an element of self-preservation in keeping the laptop out of sight. So, I literally don’t open it until after eight in the evening. I work for a couple of hours and then shut down. My frequently-visited-webpages display shows only five or six sites—the other icons are blank.

My cell phone sits most of the day on the charging unit, unplugged. I use it for music for the kids sometimes, because Raffi makes building with Duplos less likely to result in a squabble. I listen to political podcasts when I’m doing dishes at night. My wife and I connect a couple times a day by texting, so that we’re on the same page about meals and schedules. But my phone will vibrate and I am, at last, unmoved. I let email and text notifications sit for hours before I check them. It hasn’t killed me yet.

We’re moving again, this time to Silicon Valley. Should be interesting.