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August 12, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Requiem for a Stream

I left the internet for seven days and all I got was this existential crisis.

TUESDAY NIGHT

All I have is ten minutes.

It’s 11.50 pm. I’ve got a season of a show at 90 per cent, and a few readings still downloading. They’ll make it. At midnight, on orders from the stone-hearted Salient co-editors, I will disconnect. Completely. No 3G on my phone, no Wi-Fi on my laptop, no sneaky Facebook at uni, no Snapchat, no iMessage, no Twitter, no Gmail, no Tumblr, no Metlink, no Westpac, no Stuff.co.nz, no Blackboard, no Instagram, no Slate—no modern comforts at all. For a whole week.

This is, of course, terrifying. I’m absurdly addicted to the internet. I use phrases like “online presence” and “following–follower ratio” without irony. I read a small novel each day in blog posts. It’s with me from the moment I wake up to the minute I fall asleep. A friend facebooks me to tell me she is mourning, as “this is essentially a 21st-century death.” We’ll see.

I’m not alone in my attachment. Everyone I tell about the challenge immediately admits they would have trouble themselves, but “not as much as you’ll have”. We’re all reliant on the internet to some degree, even if it’s just for Blackboard and the weather.

I’ve gone without the internet before, everyone has, but only in times filled with other distractions—overseas travel, a weekend away with friends, moving into a flat—going offline but still going about my everyday life will be new. But why not? The Verge’s Paul Miller did it for a year; I can at least last a week. New Breaking Bad doesn’t start for another two weeks anyway.

 WEDNESDAY

I’m late. Usually, I read some news on my phone before I leave the warm fortress of my duvets; today, I ended up just sleeping more. Everyone else on the bus is tapping away on a smartphone, while I sit in somewhat smug superiority with a brick-sized book. They are catching up on what’s changed since they last checked the glowing rectangle in their pockets; I’m plumbing the depths of human experience through the written word, right? My hair looks great though, and I can’t snapchat it to anyone.

Alone in the Salient offices at around 10.30, the superiority is gone. I’ve sent a few texts to my friends asking if they are around and am feeling terrible about it. Texts are so invasive and needy. There’s all this purpose and decision involved. I miss the casualness of Facebook chat, the subconscious availability of the green “online” light.

Near 2.30, I’m in a very slow and anecdotal lecture. Everyone around me is ignoring the lecturer’s pained life story with their Facebook and Tumblr; I have to retreat into my thoughts. I don’t usually allow myself time to consider my life on more than a day-to-day basis, to feel bad about being single or compare myself to everyone else my age, or attempt to map some kind of career trajectory. Social media might encourage constant self-reflection, but you can usually just take a new profile picture. People have been distracting themselves from reality with fiction for years; the internet just makes it easier. How can you wallow in existential despair with every episode of The Simpsons so readily available?

A few hours later, in a homely café with some friends, the self-reflection from the lecture feels distant and narcissistic. When I’m with people, the whole internet-less thing is a bit of a joke, something to wryly admit I find hard before moving on to something else. Conversation is essentially what I want out of the internet anyway.  My friends keep bringing it up though, and the back of my mind can’t drop it. What am I going to do when I get home? Read? Work? Sleep?

Well, attempt to sleep. It’s 1.57 am and there’s a twinge in my stomach, a yearning to finish something. I want passive stimulation, a podcast about something boring or an audiobook to turn my mind off to. Is this what smokers have to deal with? I miss the feeling of six browser tabs waiting for me to read them. I miss the “Gory Serial-Killer Teen Screams” category Netflix created for me. I miss the sense that billions of things are going on all over the world in different time zones while I lie warm and comfortable in bed. Finally, I find an adequately boring first-year Media textbook, and drift off.

 THURSDAY

Work.

Salient conceded that I might lose my job were I to ignore work emails, so have allowed me this small victory. I’m refreshing my inbox over and over again, as refreshing something feels pretty good. I’m being very restrained. The whole internet is right there in front of me. I could be reading a terrible Thought Catalog piece in seconds, and nobody would ever know. I could have opened BuzzFeed three times and then closed the tab before it loaded, even. Who knows?

After work, I meet some friends, because filling time with social activity is currently my best coping mechanism. I keep telling them I’ve reached a new level of “zen” offline. In reality, I’m hyperaware of my surroundings, and feel a little sick. The letter-spacing in the windows of several Willis St stores is way off. The wind and the birds are very loud. Civic Square could use a redesign. If I can’t be overloaded with information from the internet, I’ll make darn sure I get it somewhere. My friends are talking about the Andrea Vance phone calls and I have no snarky Twitter commentary to pass off as my own. One of them instagrams me covertly and then won’t show me the photo, dooming me to 128 hours of wondering how bad I look. Fuck.

University is crazy-hard without the internet. I have a small assignment to do by tomorrow, the kind of thing you could usually knock off in 90 minutes without a thought, but it’s going to take years. First, I have to text someone and get them to type out every question for me, as they were only available on Blackboard. Then, since I bought an online-only e-book for this course, I have to venture into the library without using their online catalogue. Eventually, I find an older edition. With all these materials, I figure focussing on the actual assignment will be easy—no distractions right? Wrong. For some of us, each sentence is a victory. Said victory requires reward—usually two minutes of Tumblr or the like. Offline, it ends up being a whole episode of Seinfeld, or a few chapters of a book, or an elaborately conceived snack. Even after my distraction desire is sated, my laptop is impossible to return to. It isn’t fun any more. There are none of the small snippets of entertainment that motivate my entire being on there, only drudgery. I think I need to buy a magazine or something.

FRIDAY

This is getting easier. Now, granted, I spent all of today with people, but the only time I reflexively pulled out my phone to tweet was when a friend said, “you only need one hand to make it rain,” and that was much funnier at the time. I’m still kind of adrift and I stare at things for too long, but it’s more like being stoned than being hungover. I even got the opportunity to feel superior to some serial instagrammers at a party. While they work out the best angles on their front cameras, my friends and I have found a more archaic method of image-sharing—a decrepit photocopier. Photocopying your hands and faces and jewellery for effect is much more fun than just applying the ‘Inkwell’ filter, and you don’t have to worry about your mum seeing the results either.

SATURDAY

I spoke too soon. Alone, hungover, and bored, I start to feel shitty about how shitty I feel. I should be able to entertain myself. I should be able to read a book for longer than 20 minutes without wanting to google a review of it. I should be able to enjoy something without wanting to tell everyone about it. In search of someone or something to blame, and something to do, I scribble down three theories. As always with these things, it’s probably all of them.

One: Capitalism! The advertising gods who run Facebook and Google make more money the more time I spend online, so they’ve engineered a desire to stay connected within me. It’s like putting collectable toys in Happy Meals: pure evil.

Two: Everyone else! All I have is garden variety Fear Of Missing Out. A huge amount of social activity is going on in the airwaves around me that I can’t access, and it’s only natural for me to feel displaced. Much of contemporary culture takes place exclusively online; why wouldn’t I feel bad about missing it? This is just like when I wasn’t allowed to watch Pokémon.

Three: Me! I’m a shallow person obsessed with the immediate, who can’t stand delayed gratification or the simple pleasures life offers. I live in relative luxury in the cultural capital of my first-world country, yet I find myself depressed and bored because I can’t casually stalk someone’s Snapchat crushes. I am what’s wrong with our generation.

SUNDAY

What I miss most is Google. All the social-media stuff is plenty addictive too, but what I really need is the ability to know anything I want in seconds. Nobody goes to the library to research “seth cohen best moments” or “how to pronounce The Weeknd” or “hataitai bus times”. These are topics only Google can help with.

I go to my parents’ for dinner on Sundays. You would think solid family time is the thing I need to shake these withdrawals, but I have to leave early so they can skype my sisters.

MONDAY

Have you ever paid your rent by hand? Like, gone to your bank, transferred money into your eftpos accessible account, withdrawn more cash than you feel comfortable holding, walked to another bank, texted your flatmate in search of the flat account’s number, waited ten minutes for a reply, called your flatmate to find their phone off, texted another flatmate, got a reply, deposited it all to a bemused banker who can’t read your handwriting, and then finally got to go home? I don’t recommend it.

TUESDAY

The end is almost here.

I spend all of Tuesday in a daze. In my 1 pm tut, I start to make a grand point about the constitutional powers of the US President and realise halfway through that I’ve forgotten the key statement. It’s very embarrassing, and I can’t even google the quote I’m after to save face with the tutor after class.

I feel like I’m on the plane home from a trip abroad. The world is turning hundreds of feet beneath me. I’m sure things are happening this weekend, but without Facebook events, I don’t know where. I start to read a paper, but I’ve missed the beginnings to all the sagas, and can’t catch up. I’m tired and excited all at once.

WEDNESDAY

While brainstorming this feature, someone asked me whether I would rather lose an arm or the internet. After a second, I replied with, “which arm?” The internet is so much more than another diversion, so much bigger than anything before it. It’s a language: a system for transmitting thought, much like English or the printing press. One can carry out an entire well-paid career online, or a fully fledged romance. I’m sure we should all get out and enjoy the ‘real world’ some more, but the internet is now just as real as maths, science or literature.

At midnight, I start the long process of catching up. Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. A friend snapchatted me asking how life without the internet is going. A (now former) friend intentionally resurfaced awkward teenaged photos of me on Facebook. I’m re-receiving 30 text messages as iMessages. I have 400 emails to ignore.

I end up with only one piece of wisdom about leaving the internet for seven days: don’t.

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