A Radical Proposal: We Need to Shut the Internet Off For Six Weeks

Wait wait wait wait wait: hear me out!

by Joel Golby
10 October 2018, 11:48am

(Image via Flickr/youngthousands)

You need six weeks off from the internet, and so do I. There is no point debating it – though I know you are scared – because it’s just true, we do. Don’t: don’t look, please. Give me one more minute of your time. I know your phone just dinged and you want to look at it. Don’t look at your phone. It is just an Instagram like. Back to me: it’s just an Instagram like. Ding: I am convinced Facebook invents notifications to drop onto you when you have the Facebook tab open, to keep you running back to it, alt-tab alt-tab alt-tab, Three People You Know Are Interested In An Event Near You Tomorrow. Ding. Look at this sentence. Fix your eyes on it. Just keep your eyes here, right here. You have quite a strong and overwhelming urge to check your e-mails right now, don’t you? You feel the tension in your knees and it blooms up thru your stomach then your chest. Ding. You have not got an important e-mail in the last 40 seconds. You have not got an important e-mail, truly, this week. Six weeks away from the internet, that’s all I’m asking. Six weeks, shut it off.

You fear you will know nothing without the internet. I know this because I feel it too. This has happened to you, more than once: you have been in a bar and a halfway-contentious factual assertion has come up. For instance: a lot of my friends like to talk to me about the 1998 film A Bug’s Life. You remember how Antz also came out, that year? For one brilliant summer, in the nascent timeline of CGI family-friendly animated films as a whole, there was not one but two films following the adventures of an insect. That’s weird, isn’t it? We don’t talk about that enough. But every time I am at the pub someone is like, hey:

Wasn’t Sylvester Stallone in that film?

And I go: no. Sylvester Stallone was in Antz . Kevin Spacey was in A Bug’s Life.

And they go: well which one was Sharon Stone in? And I say: again that was Antz. And they go: are you sure though?

And even though yes I am sure Sharon Stone was in Antz she played Bala, even then, no: they have their phone out, single finger outstretched, and they are checking, just in case. They have to know now. You have to know now. And here you are, the conversation gone, both of you looking, knowing. If you both stood there and tried thinking it, you probably could have known that between you anyway. You could have remembered Sharon Stone was in Antz. But you didn’t, did you. You had to check. Six weeks, shut it off.

You want to tell me that your job is dependent on the internet, but it is not. Most of the time the internet actively hinders you from doing your job. You pretend you have a laser-like focus far above the means of your peers and that you and you alone are capable of keeping a work:internet balance before succumbing to the dark pull, and then you find yourself just staring at an ASOS basket, wondering whether you need those shoes (do you need those shoes? You do not need those shoes. Keep them in the basket while you think about buying those shoes). You think you have self-discipline but you do not. You can do your job without the internet, you just don’t want to. “B–but, my e-mails!” If it is that important they will phone you up. “B–but we need to maintain a social media presence!” You volunteered to set up an additional Instagram for your office’s brand because having one Instagram account logged in on your phone didn’t feel sufficient enough, and now what happens every evening after you eat and put on jogging bottoms and watch TV in the background is scroll through every photo on your personal Instagram account until you get bored, then log out of that and log back in as your office – the office’s photo feed is a series of Boomerangs of Friday drinkies and any dog that ever visits your place of work, 140 in-company follows only – and scroll through that, instead. The office Instagram is not important to anyone but you. The world will continue to turn if you no longer do this. You will still be able to do your job without the internet (I will still be able to do my job without it, and look where you are reading this right now). You will probably do it better. They managed in the days of yore. Six weeks, shut it off.

One week is not enough, is the thing: you can do one week, easily, and that’s why I can’t let you stop there. At one week you’ll start carrying a little notebook around, writing down things to binge-Google and people to e-mail as soon as you’re back (you’ll draft Instagram selfies of yourself, your face a desperate approximation of peace [“Love being disconnected!”] and upload it the second the taps are turned back on). Two weeks is just a holiday. Four weeks is what you’d agree to do as a bet, because it’s uncomfortable but just about doable: you could agree to do four weeks, right now, for a sizeable enough payday (I name your price at: £500. You would give up the internet for 28 days for £500.). Five weeks is where we enter feral territory. Five weeks is important. Five weeks is when you’ve truly given up, where you feel at your deepest, your furthest away without internet. You start to gnaw on the sides of your cages. You talk to people on the bus. You actually look up numbers in the phone book and call people up (you actually made a reservation at a restaurant!). You didn’t read a whole book exactly but you gave it a good go. Out of boredom, you went for a rough sort of jog (you dreaded doing this without an app to track it, so delayed the run proper for six to eight days while you worked up the nuts). I am not telling you that you will be fixed. I am not telling you that you will be made anew again. I think, without the internet for six weeks, you will end up doing a lot of similarly weird, useless things that we do when our minds wander: you will read the back of a toothpaste packet, you will masturbate in insane places. You will not come out of this experience magically a good person. But on Day #55 your brain will do something where it feels like it just let out a breath it first inhaled sharply a decade a go, and you will feel a brief, rare note of calm. You need this, we all need this. Six weeks, shut it off.

As someone who consumes a simply monstrous amount of content every day (think of it like eating a roughage-heavy diet to enable better shits), I can tell you there is a subgenre of content where people "disconnect" and tell you all the wise things they have learned along the way. So for instance they will go to the woods. They will sleep in a cabin for ten days. They’ll have their phone stolen and – you know what, actually, no! I won’t replace it right away! I’ll wait a fortnight and do it then! See what I learn! There are ways of dumbing your smartphone down, or turning the bright colours off, or just buying a simple text-and-calls £10 brick and using that instead. You can buy special filtered glasses now that stop you looking at screens. More than once you have met a person in real life with the smug exhilarance of a yoga instructor who tells you how good it felt to delete their Facebook account. We have all these small ways of dealing with the onslaught of the internet, turning off a tap that drips into the sea. I am telling you that one Sunday magazine feature about living in a tent is not enough to fix you. Six weeks, shut it off.

I cannot help but think that the internet wasn’t meant to turn out like this and that there was a certain tipping point where we could have saved it. Tim Berners Lee did not die for this. Early Web 1.0 was a weird place, two steps beyond bulletin boards and plain text yung internet and somewhere before social media everywhereism: it was Newgrounds and Badger Badger Mushroom and MyBB and that weird website your dad made about the dog. Do you recall, before Facebook, simply how many Flash games existed where you could murder Osama Bin Laden? It was so many games about murdering Osama Bin Laden. I do not recall how we shared links. I got like, one e-mail every couple of days (and I would diligently respond to every one!). I would sort of pootle around, really: early internet felt like a languid stroll alongside a particularly weird stream, easy to dip in and out of, whereas modern internet feels like sprinting against the thunder of a river. The internet is a swirling storm of attention, now, the internet as a chaos of architecture, the internet as poison, red dot notifications and a huge pane telling you about cookies, yes yes cookies just show me the content, and the internet now is news, and news and news and news, and news, and news and news, and news. The internet now is relentless, and you are right to feel overwhelmed. Six weeks, shut it off.

Do we even have the logistics in place to do this? I feel like the upper echelons of the US Army must have a killswitch. There must be some panic room, red roving sirens and banks of screens, and with three keys all clicked in unison we can turn the whole thing off. Right? The question I suppose is this: do you think we will, collectively, turn to violence? Do you think the nerds will assemble with all the anime swords they bought online before The Darkness, and take down the army one-by-one, bust their way into the bunker, flick the switches back? Or will they just walk upstairs, a little dazed, (everyone gets a day off work the day we do it: that is the sweeteners), and just like, have some pancakes, watch some TV? I am allowing us to still have TV. We had TV before the internet. We can still watch TV. We just won’t, like, do a thinkpiece after every episode of it. The forums that analyse every background extra, every poster, every line of dialogue and cross-check it against the source books: those people will just, like, go to bed. What do you actually think you would do, with six weeks? I don’t know. I’d play videogames a bit, just not online. I’d… probably read, more, from actual books? Might cook some dinners. It wouldn’t be a great revelation. When I wake up, instead of looking at memes for 40 straight minutes before getting in the shower, would I… go back to sleep for a bit? Get straight up and get to work on time? Go to the gym? What kind of person would I be if I wasn’t given instant access to all the information in the world when I was 11, 12 years old? What kind of person would you be? Close your eyes and imagine it now. You are coming round to the idea. You see yourself walking through a park on a sunny day. The flowers bloom harder and the birds sing sweeter. Or are you just noticing them more because you haven’t had any alerts on your phone to look at? Look around you: all these people, outside, thriving. Are they happy? It’s not exactly easy to tell. Are you? Not really a black and white thing. But you don’t fucking feel worse for it, do you? That’s the absolute one thing that hasn’t happened at all. Six weeks, that’s all I’m asking. Six weeks, shut it all off.