Going Offline: How to Become the Proverbial “Fish out of Water”

With three days to go before taking the red pill, it's probably a good time to sketch the contours of the Slow Media experiment that I'll be conducting until 2011. I've had these guidelines floating in my head for a while but haven't put them in writing until now.

My main priority is to escape the gift/curse of constant communication and infinite information, in order to 1) free up time to spend on other things, such as analog or material forms of media, and 2) enable some contemplation about the role of digital media in my life. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, no one knows who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish.

The overarching scenario is that I'll adopt the media technologies of 1990, just before the Internet and cellphones began their ascent — which holds some rhetorical and romantic appeal (for me, at least) in being a tidy 20 years ago, at the dawn of my adulthood. Forgive me any accidental anachronisms but hey, I'm not a historian… yet. I'll be living largely in the less-connected spirit of that time.

This means: Any print is kosher — newspapers, magazines, books but no Kindles, iPads, e-books. I'll listen to vinyl records, audio-cassettes and CDs but not iPods and their kin. Watch cable TV and VHS but not DVR or DVDs. Use a typewriter or an offline computer for word-processing, statistical analysis and desktop publishing, but nothing networked or downloaded or "in the cloud." Make calls on a land-line phone but not a mobile one. Listen to terrestrial radio but not satellite or online broadcasts.

A few new habits that I envision picking up:

  • Going to libraries to borrow videotapes, instead of Netflix.
  • Sending letters, postcards or faxes and making phone calls, instead of writing e-mails.
  • Publishing a zine, instead of a blog. 
  • Going to more brick-and-mortar stores, instead of shopping online at Amazon, Craigslist, eBay or wherever.
  • Paying monthly bills with checks, instead of online bill-payer.
  • Calling my bank's teller-phone, instead of accessing my accounts on the Web. 
  • Using printed references like dictionaries, phone books and thesauri, instead of online resources.
  • Buying plane tickets through a travel agent, instead of Kayak.com or airline sites.
  • Checking the forecast in the newspaper or on the Weather Channel, instead of at Wunderground.com.
  • Visiting libraries to do research, instead of trawling online catalogs and electronic databases from home.
  • Looking up directions in a map or atlas, instead of Google maps or Mapquest.

When it comes to media technologies that other people use, I'm neutral. I appreciate that many friends, family and colleagues are eager and/or willing to cooperate with this Slow Media experiment of mine. But I won't direct them to do (or not do) anything for me that they wouldn't have normally done on their own. If someone uses a cellphone, I will talk to them on it. If a travel agent goes online to book my flight, so be it. If people providing me products or services require the Internet to do their jobs, que sera sera. Whatever they do behind the scenes essentially doesn't change my experience.

The few technological devices I'll still be using are probably better than whatever was
available back then, but I lack the time, money and inclination for
scouring garage sales and junk shops to build a rec room replete with
Betamax and Commodore Amiga — though I probably wouldn't resist a
princess phone or Atari 2600 if I stumbled upon one.

Vive la liberté!

The Slow Media Project has moved forward by leaps and bounds
this month, despite (or perhaps due to) there being scant evidence of such in
my blog. Here’s the update:

April 4: The
countdown begins.
The magic date for going offline, off-cellphone and
off-Facebook will be Independence Day, of course. Three months
to go, which gives ample time to arrange and publicize alternate methods of
contact that don’t involve e-mail, chat, or text message. For example: I now
have a P.O. Box, and a landline is in the works. I’ve been working for over a
month to unsubscribe from hundreds of e-mail lists — they’ve really
accumulated during the course of my 20 years “on e-mail” — so my in-boxes won’t look too daunting when I go back online next year.

April 11-17: National Library Week. The way I see it, the Slow Media movement is about appreciating
“heritage” and “heirloom” forms of media and communication, not necessarily rejecting digital ones. So I visited my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library
in Bed-Stuy… Upon inquiring for a new library card, I was directed to apply
online at a nearby computer station. Most people there were, in fact, using the
public computers or playing CDs and DVDs rather than perusing the stacks or
handling dead trees. N.B.: The BPL seems eager to extract money for using
their free books; the borrowing card they gave me is labeled “debit card.”

April 19-25: Digital
Detox Week.
Our neighbors to the North have taken a shine to this notion of
Slow Media, as I was interviewed recently for stories by La Presse in Montreal
(story here, en francais) and others. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for example,
assigned a “guinea pig” to spend a day offline and report back. And, the whole Digital Detox Week campaign, formerly TV Turnoff Week, comes
courtesy of Adbusters.org, which is based in Vancouver.

Next up: Purging all my social-media profiles, which means finding out whether I'm still registered with Friendster or MySpace. I haven't used them since, oh, 2006 or 2007.