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This is my brain. This is my brain on the internet. Some interesting questions.

July 19, 2010
by

So I quit the internet for a month.  Sort of.  I am going to admit right up front that I cheated a few times, but for the majority of the time I went cold turkey and you know what?  It was harder than I thought, but not for the reasons I thought it would be.

In the last year, since I’ve been more homebound, I have found myself on the internet more than ever.  Sometimes I would be on for hours at a time with no other reason than I started to check e-mail and somehow got lost on that left turn to flickr or facebook or whatever virtual Albuquerque I came upon. I started to worry in earnest that I was addicted, that I had become so compulsive in my logging in that I couldn’t stop, even if I wanted to.

Also, my attention span had gone to utter pot.  It was getting harder and harder to read a book, something I could easily blame on new parenthood, but I also noticed I couldn’t even watch a movie all the way through without minimizing it and checking e-mail, which lead to flickr, blogs, facebook, etc.

Then there was the ol’ anxiety–and how it seemed to be on the increase.  I was worried A LOT.  Again, new parenthood was indeed a culprit, but specifically, my status anxiety was almost in constant rumbling, if not spouting like a dormant geyser that now blew faithfully at odd times during the day.  I was worried about everything from career, to parenting, to appearance to popularity.  Nothing NEW per se, but it seemed more REVVED up and CHRONIC than usual.

In short, my mind just felt bad.  Not fully depressed, but muddied and clogged with too much input and not enough output.   I was ready for a change.

My initial plan was to strip down other instant technologies that I used daily like the cell phone and the digital camera, but two things became clear to me: when on a road trip with a baby, I just didn’t feel comfortable without the cell phone.  Yes, it’s a recently created form of worry, but what is wrong with a piece of mind?  Knowing I could call in an emergency if I needed to was worth keeping the cell phone.  Also, we could have used film, but Graham’s camera is broken, and I could not foresee going a FULL MONTH of Gus’ life without a single picture—including a couple BIG LIFE MOMENTS like taking him to meet his great grandfathers.  Again, a relatively newly created need, but I was willing to keep those going.  So it became just about the internet.

As it turns out, I am not addicted to the internet.  When in California for two weeks, I barely thought of it AT ALL and in fact RELISHED being off it.  Half way through the trip, when it came time to set up the internet sabbatical notices on my e-mail and blog I DRAGGED my feet.  I didn’t even WANT to check e-mail, but I had to for one last time and to make sure my editors and PR lady knew how to get hold of me, if need be.  After that, I cut ties and didn’t THINK of the internet again for another 10 days…

And then I came home and that’s when things got hard.

First of all, I had to go back to work.  While I got calls from one of my editors and my PR lady about various book business, I found my natural compulsion to answer questions myself or seek out answers through the internet hard to resist.  It’s somewhat more WORK to research things off line.  I realized in a couple of cases I had even forgot HOW.  I had things to plan, like a return trip to CA for a memorial service—how am I going to find the best deal?  I used to call a travel agent, but I don’t know of any and where do ‘I find one when I don’t even have a phonebook?

Then there are the weird self-made up “research” that I had never noticed before.  If I heard a song I noticed how my immediate response was to Google the artist, and see if she had a blog, facebook page, photos, etc.  Now without the means to find out, I was struck at how novel it felt just to experience the SONG as the SONG instead of the whole life around it.  Ditto for books or articles or mentions of things I felt interested by.

The first fall from grace though happened when I was home alone with Gus all day.  Because his sleeping had gone to shit (more on that later), it was a very hard day. Getting out of the house would have been a good idea, but our subway line was down, and we’ve discovered that we got a stroller that I can’t pick up on its own and carry down the stairs, much less with Gus in it.  I usually put him in the Bjorn, but it was 95 degrees out and the idea of strapping a hot 20 lbs baby to my body did not seem like a good idea.  I tried calling friends, but they either didn’t answer or couldn’t talk just then.  Finally, in a fit of desperation, needing a moment to check out by checking in, I logged in—oh the escapist ecstasy!   As it turned out, it was a good thing I did check because there were three press/interview queries waiting for me.  I went back and forth with a journalist, made a date to do a phone interview and then something interesting happened…

This little fall from the wagon was very informative to me: I realized the moment I feel bored, stuck, or isolated I reach for the internet.  It gives me a weird sense of connection and gives me an often false sense of getting things “done.”    After e-mail I watched the old root hog in me get going: I went from e-mail to blog to blog to blog and was just about to check Facebook, when I stopped myself.

That’s when I realized my real problem: I’m LONELY here.  When in California, we were traveling, but also surrounded by friends and family to visit with.  The weather was GORGEOUS, so when in need, we just stepped outside and hung out in the yard or went for a walk—simple things that require a lot more planning where we live in Brooklyn.  There’s the stroller problem, but then there is the general isolation problem too.  In order to go anywhere hospitable, we have to plan, pack, and journey on the subway.  We have people we like and hang out with here, but it seems a lot more high maintenance to plan—sometimes requiring weeks if not months in planning just for coffee.  We have to journey or they have to journey at least 45 minutes to get anywhere.

The truth is, we don’t have a life and I look for that life on-line more than I care to admit.  Working from home and having a baby has only made that worse.   I know there are people—smart people—that would disagree with me when I say that on-line life is not REAL life.  It’s not exactly FAKE either, but for me, it doesn’t equate the real-time aspects of being with people and experiencing the outside world.

The benefits of being off-line included feeling more present in my life, and way less scattered because, lo and behold, my focus DID become better.  Graham and I connected more.  My journal pages went up, as did my reading of books, and (interesting to me) listening to full length CDs.  Like ANYTHING that has become compulsive, I see that my internet usage was just indicating an imbalance IN GENERAL.

I’d like this to become a REGULAR thing I do, but considering how much logistical stuff it took to arrange it, I think I’ll need to try it in smaller doses.  Graham and I have talked about having internet free days and/or evenings.  It’s something I plan on exploring like an ongoing experiment.

14 Comments
  1. July 19, 2010 7:38 am

    A great post with such interesting things to chew on!

    I have been feeling quite similar for a while now, and it’s GROWING…
    I have noticied that what feels like me taking weeks to reply to someones email is actually now- months! Yet this isn’t by accident, though not conscious I am staging some kind of revolt.

    I have my own in between life going on- which means most of my family and friends are the other side of the world, and those that aren’t are 2 bus rides + over an hour away… life just happens and it’s so much easier to just log on… but while net relationships/connections can be great they NEVER compare to real life face to face ones.

    Interested to see how the unfolds for you, net free days sound like a great idea to me🙂

  2. Sarah Chepkirui permalink
    July 19, 2010 1:45 pm

    Oh my goodness Summer can I ever relate to this post. When I lived in CA, I had a complicated internet setup and was only online at work. Then came grad school, lots of computer time, free cable in our building, and, not incidentally, a life without the carefully created community that 10 years in CA gave me. Now, with a baby, my online time has gone up exponentially. I’m so committed to giving our daughter early years unconnected to a screen: and yet, my connection has grown tighter and tighter, a fact with which I’m increasingly uncomfortable. The thing is, community building takes time. And maybe it’s harder in NY? Harder with a kid? Harder now that I”m older? Anyway, many thanks, and now I need to get off the blogs and go back to work!

    Take good care.

  3. July 19, 2010 2:14 pm

    Oh the internet…a blessing and a curse all at once. I think you have to be realistic and objective about the connections you make online. Facebook allows me to be constantly in touch with my family who all live near one another but far from me but I’m aware that it isn’t a substitute for a real relationship.

    As you say internet overuse is most likely a symptom rather than a cause but it is all to easy to let it creep into your life and take hold without you even realising. When Bart and I first got iphones we stopped communicating properly we’d just sit side by side tap tapping away. We were in each other’s company but not interacting at all. Our PC isn’t in the living room so if one of us is on the computer we’re physically separate. It was oddly damaging and recently we’ve had to work hard at spending quality time together. After all quality time got it’s name for a reason! Whether you spend it with awesome people, reading, writing, drawing it’s an absolute necessity.

  4. July 19, 2010 4:06 pm

    love this post.

    i agree with you that internet life is not real life. that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have *value*. but it isn’t three-dimensional, it doesn’t have a smell, it doesn’t require anything of you.

    love what you say about it indicating an imbalance in general .. that is exactly how i feel about it. i just wrote last week about inspiration overload and how exposing yourself to all the inspiration on the internet can sap your making/doing energy.

    you’re awesome.

  5. summerspierre permalink*
    July 19, 2010 4:40 pm

    Everybody! Keep it COMING! I am finding this FASCINATING. I am curious–what stops anyone from unplugging? Is it work? Your own vices? What?

    Sara! I will say YES it is harder to build a community in NY, when you have a baby, and when you are older. As you say, it all takes time, BUT NY is one of the most non intimate places I’ve ever been. I also have made a commitment to Gus being screen free for the early development, while becoming more screen attached myself.

  6. July 19, 2010 8:14 pm

    I used to be a busy trial lawyer. Then I had kids and decided to stay home for awhile. Now, I’m homeschooling them, so ten years have gone by. I have nothing in common with people from my old life, or my new one. It is so very isolating sometimes, that I really feel that the internet has become my lifeline. Some of my closest “friends” are people who live across the globe and with whom I visit online. Local parents don’t get the issues I face with my kids (most of them, anyway), so I’ve found some online groups that do and that’s where I go to discuss the kinds of things that, perhaps, other parents chat about in real life over coffee.

    I sometimes feel, when I finally shut down the lid on the laptop, that I’ve disconnected myself from far more than just the vast stores of information on the internet (that I also gluttonously absorb every day), but rather from a part of my “life”.

    It’s kind of sad, really.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post. Maybe I’ll go off and actually implement one of the many ideas I’ve bookmarked on this damn machine….

  7. July 19, 2010 11:47 pm

    Today I planned to shop for a laptop.I havn’t had a personal computor for four years.Being the Artist in the workplace I’ve used theirs until lately when the policy changed of how much time employees can spend on personal surfing.I miss blogging and the access on my own time at home but my greatest fears about the information highway have been confirmed by your recent entry.Thanx,Got t’go, Fry’s is having a sale.

  8. Sarah Chepkirui permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:44 pm

    OK, so I’ve been thinking about why this screen is so enticing, and although community is part of it, I’m realizing there’s more. Combining full-time graduate-student-hood, with being the primary caretaker of an infant is rather intense (no surprise to anyone combining two lives of any sort, of course): intense and non-stop. So, I tend to use the internet as a way to space out, take time away from thinking, relating, nursing, writing, diaper changing, playing, worrying about why my daughter won’t go to sleep at night… Which makes me think that I need to create that time in my days. Also, having just seen a dear friend, I realize that friends can offer something similar, only in a way that leaves me feeling healthy and re-filled, rather than spacey and kind of disconnected. So, now I’m thinking about ways to create down time that don’t involve the computer. Thanks so much for asking these questions and offering this space, Summer.

  9. Kim permalink
    July 20, 2010 8:05 pm

    There is so much truth in this thought-provoking post. I can totally relate to your statement that your real problem is that you are lonely. I’m over 50, my parents are both dead now, my daughter just graduated from college, and I’m a homemaker. The women I know in my real world do not share my interest in poetry, have no clue what a zine is, and have never heard of Florence and The Machine. I think of the Internet as the true “meeting of the minds,” and thanks to this connection I have been able to “talk” to kindred spirits and keep myself sane. There are worse things I could be doing to fill the void, like sitting in front of the TV all day buying junk from home shopping networks or drinking myself under the kitchen table. This is how I rationalize the time I spend on the computer.

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time now – long before your marriage. And I just have to second what that paramedic said about Gus: “Mama, he is BEAUTIFUL.”

  10. Geri Hoekzema permalink
    July 21, 2010 2:37 am

    For the last 10 years, I’ve periodically taken short breaks from electronics & communication devices – usually for a week in January after the holiday rush, and a week during summer. During that week I don’t check email & Facebook, post on my blogs, surf the web or even answer non-urgent phone messages. Lately I’ve even stopped watching DVDs during that week – I read instead.

    Until the youngest graduated this summer, I had school-age kids, a job and an on-again off-again freelance business, so it’s always taken some planning. A week or so before I go off the grid, I send out a message to people on my email lists, program an automatic response for senders, and record a new greeting on the answering machine. That way, no one’s surprised. Only a few people (relatives) got a little pissy but they learned to hang loose for a week. Now they just expect it. I try to anticipate problems that might come up that require e-solutions, and take care of them beforehand.

    I recommend going off the e-grid once in awhile as a way of restoring sanity and learning to listen to what’s going on inside you. Like I said, it takes planning but it’s possible.

  11. Krystal permalink
    July 21, 2010 4:32 am

    You’ll have to pry the computer away from my dead cold hands.

    And dude, getting out of the house with kids, even in BEAUTIFUL weather, such as it is here, is TOTALLY difficult no matter what. Comedically difficult. I think once they are out of diapers it becomes a tad easier-although, then comes the three year old neurotic incessant negotiations. Oh Lord.

    I admire your steadfastness in the internet sabbatical department.

  12. Cecile permalink
    July 21, 2010 8:37 am

    Wow. There has to be something to this internet for the synchronicity to be so AWESOME!

    Fabulous post this. Spot on. Kept nodding my head in agreement, especially about this line: “Also, my attention span had gone to utter pot.”

    I can’t seem to do anything for longer than 15 minutes these days, which is depressing. I’m reading Patti Smith’s excellent memoir Just Kids, and she writes about working for hours on end alongside Robert Maplethorpe. They were starving young artists, but they believed in what they were doing and did it for hours. Sans interruptions. I dream of that. Perhaps like you should I should unplug. Stick with notepad and pencil, not iPad and keyboard.

    I feel like starting a movement🙂

    Who was it that said “Figure out what sucks, and then don’t do that?” (but does it stop us from unplugging? The internet does enrich our lives and inspire us. And so do you.

    Thank you, Summer, for sharing the contents of your wonderful brain. You have enriched my life & got me back to drawing and writing in journals. (And one day I’ll have my own blog…?🙂

    Warm regards & kudos to you,
    Cecile (from Luxembourg, Europe)

  13. July 24, 2010 5:05 pm

    i guess you’ll read this when you return from your sabbatical. ;^)

    what keeps me from unplugging? i had to work my way through it and find the right balance. what worked for me was having a computer that was designated for work, that stayed in my office. somehow that kept the lines from being as blurred as they had been. it was too easy to do a million things and call it “work”. now i have to be more honest (with myself!) that when i am foodling around on the computer in the house, it’s not work.

    i think your sabbatical is a great idea. sometimes you have to do something extreme to change things up. a total reboot.

  14. July 25, 2010 1:16 pm

    Diane @MackvilleRoad sent me a link to this blog entry. Oh my, how I can relate! I check email…Facebook…YouTube…Twitter…work email…repeat, repeat, repeat. It is just the most insidious circular habit. I hate it more and more all the time, all the while not being able to stop it. I don’t even have time to make my blog entries anymore. They just take too long. UUUUUUUgh! jan

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