A Webless World

I was slightly delayed in posting my most recent column to this page because, due to a minor snafu with my apartment’s cable provider, I was denied access to the Internet for a full 48 hours in the middle of last week.

When I first switched on my computer and discovered this lack of a connection, not knowing the cause or how long the outage might persist, I proceeded to act as any grounded, technologically-attuned twentysomething would in such a circumstance.

I freaked out.

Eventually I calmed down, knowing the blackout would not last forever, and took to my traditional rotisserie of break-glass-in-case-of-emergency time-fillers, such as going for a walk and (I shudder at the thought) reading a book.  When I couldn’t take it anymore, I whipped out my trusty Android and, through its satellite hookup, surfed the web.

The question begs itself:  What would we ever do with ourselves without the Internet?  Not for the piddling two-day window I experienced—rather, forever.  My peers, of the so-called Millennial Generation, have the distinction of remembering what life was like before the ubiquity of the web, yet utterly unable to picture—and function in—such a world today.  We are fond of asking our parents, “How did you survive without the Internet?”  Well, how did we?

At the risk of generalizing:  Americans have proved themselves impressively adept at adapting to new ways of life, particularly in the field of technology.  Baby boomers have hopscotched from one means of listening to music and watching movies to another with admirable grace.  Of course, the young plow through ever-snazzier iterations of telephone, computer and music player at dizzying speeds.  And while old folks might resist the clarion call of newfangled gadgetry more than the population as a whole, there are nonetheless far more grandmas and grandpas with Kindles and Facebook accounts than any of us could have foreseen, say, five years ago.

But adapting backward?  Maybe not so easy.

It was George Carlin who theorized that, should the entire world suddenly be denied electricity, it would take all of two years for our planet to plunge back into a barbaric cavemen hellhole, so ill-prepared to cope would we be.  Never mind that Homo sapiens existed in so-called “behavioral modernity” form for 50,000 years prior to the industrial age.  Once we have effectively outsourced to computers all human activity that used to be done manually, to then revert to our old ways…well, as the lady said, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?”

The truly frightening thought, then, is that this is such a truly frightening thought.

You don’t need me to count the ways, and the degree to which, the Internet now controls every one of our lives—in both a micro and macro sense, in activities ranging from the essential (buying 12 jars of peanut butter from Amazon.com) to the more mundane (regulation of the global economy).  As conventional wisdom has it, the primary function of the Googletube has not been to introduce mankind to wholly new activities and concepts, but rather to make everything we were already doing exponentially quicker, easier and (on a good day) cheaper.

Has it been worth it so far?

Nicholas Kristof wrote one of the more enjoyable New York Times columns of recent weeks, titled, “Blissfully Lost in the Woods,” in which he recounted a recent 200-mile hike he took with his daughter, exalting the great wilderness as “an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption.  It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once.”  He mourns the declining interest in activities such as fishing, hunting and backpacking, suggesting implicitly there is more happiness to be found out in the wild than in the uber-connected virtual metropolis we inhabit most of the time.

Certainly the notion of Getting Away From It All is nothing new, but the need to embrace it seems to grow stronger with each successive generation.  After all, when Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden, Thomas Edison was seven years old and tweeting was strictly for the birds.  Compared to our own time, how different from the bustle of downtown Concord in 1854 could the woodlands immediately outside downtown Concord possibly have been?

Today, precisely because our society has so dramatically advanced in so little time, living in any kind of serene technological austerity is an exponentially more radical departure from the norm than ever it was in the past.  For that reason, engaging in exactly that behavior—if only for short bursts every so often—is every bit more desirable, if not outright essential, for our own well-being and perspective.

What I learned, in short, is not to wait for the next severance in the Internet-time continuum to appreciate an existence without a web hookup sitting so reliably on my desk or in my back pocket.  Our species plugged along without either for an impressive span of time; if compelled, we could probably do it again.  It is ingrained in our DNA:  Sooner or later, you have to answer Nature’s call.


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