Unremarkable observations about being offline

My wife and I spent two days last week cut off from the internet.  That wasn’t a deliberate thing to do.  We weren’t doing a digital fast.

Bryan heads into the wildWell, the trip was deliberate.  It was about taking time to hike some more of Vermont’s Long Trail. This is a footpath running along the spine of the Green Mountains, leading from Massachusetts right up the Canadian border. Being offline was a necessary consequence of this journey, since central Vermont has poor cell phone connectivity, compared with the United States.

We’ve hiked parts of the Long Trail before, and knew what to expect: a well-maintained trail, nice hikers, decent shelters, lots of ascents and descents, nearly continual canopy overhead (the “Green Tunnel” effect), some amazing views.  I’m not writing about that here, but instead reflecting about what it means to be offline in the United States in 2013.

To begin with, some problems.  First off, the cloud ceases to exist.  In particular, we couldn’t upload or remotely back up anything.  This made us cherish our handheld devices (phone, mp3 player) more than usual, as they were the sole repositories of all media we captured, like the photos in this post.  It would have been terribly easy to lose all of that with a single slide down slippery boulders, or trampled under a moose’s hoof. (Yes, we saw some evidence of moose.)

Forestforthetrees_July2013Second, we couldn’t access any relevant information online.  No weather, for instance, which meant a great deal during an unusually rainy July.  This was a safety issue at times, as when a thunderstorm’s effects  could have heightened an injuryl  No digital maps to suss out what happened to a mysteriously dead-ended trail.  No connection to updated information about the Trail.  This came into focus when contradictory signs appeared, describing the demolition or continued existence of a badly-needed shelter.

Third, disconnection from social media meant, among other things, no way to query knowledgeable folks about Trail issues.  Dealing with sudden knee pain, for example, was something we had to do on our own.

None of these are shockingly new problems.  They are familiar to any netizen who finds themselves offline – an especially well-known feeling in Vermont, compared with other American states.  They also describe the situation hikers faced since humans first came down from trees, being forced to solve problems with what’s on hand and in one’s brain.  But we’re training ourselves to expect certain features of cloud computing, online information, and social media.  The better we habituate ourselves with those tools and their practices, the bigger the shock when they’re removed.

Were there advantages to being separated from the online crowd?  Some occurred to us, but they were mild, less intense than the disadvantages.  We felt relieved of the pressure to contribute to social media, although we missed the benefits of those contacts.

Lacking the internet and phone networks, we could not contact our children, nor they us.  This offered moments of anxiety for both parties, but was also an important challenge to the kids’ maturity.  They had to be able to stand on their own, sans parents.

Offline, we spent time with memories, especially those of our wedding, 20 years earlier, and the first years of our marriage.  Would we have spent less time reflecting on the past, had we access to the internet as we sat around a fire or strode up a ridge?  Perhaps.   Yet we would have devoted some, even most of that internet time to those reflections: searching Flickr for images, telling stories by Twitter and Facebook, maybe recording a video of the two of us acting like an old married couple.

We would have read more, too, had the internet reached us, since we could only carry a slight sheaf of reading material within our crammed, vast backpacks.  We would have listened to more music.  So did we lose access to media in general?

So what does this small incident tell us about being offline in 2013?  The habits of digitally networked experience are integrated deeply into our lives.  Those habits extend beyond entertainment and distraction, serving as well our more practical needs for knowledge and health.   Disengaging from online practices offers some benefits, but it’s not clear that they outweigh the costs.

Nothing earth-shaking here, in short.  Just a note from the summer of 2013.

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4 Responses to Unremarkable observations about being offline

  1. Kevin says:

    Hey Bryan,

    Loved this reflection piece on Hiking The Long Trail and the Art of Disconnectivity! I appreciate (and agree with) you observations on how integral connectivity has become in our lives. What I found particularly intriguing, however, is the undertow in your reflection: the tension between digital connection and direct human connection. I especially appreciated the image you shared of your wife and you reminiscing about your wedding and the early years of your message – might not have happened or may not have been as long a conversation if the “Keep Vermont Green” powers-that-be would have allowed cell towers along the Long Trail.

    I think the true nature of your undertow here is balance. In our contemporary world we are becoming ever more digitally connected and, in some ways, at a cost of becoming less directly connected in a more personal way. Clearly, there is too much to be gained to completely eschew the ever-increasing opportunity to “connect.” Yet, we also face the risk of loosing, bit by bit, that which makes us intrinsically human – personal interaction. So, balance is the key here: embrace the cloud while making room to gaze upon the clouds with someone close by!


    • Good thoughts, Kevin. Yes, balance is important… but I’m not sure where the balance (or balances) occur.
      For example, are people more likely to share such stories when offline? How often do digital devices silence our oral communication, or under which conditions? Are we developing new habits? We’re still researching this.

      It was certainly sweet to have Ceredwyn close by.

  2. As I type this to a cloud-based system, I get a text. One local radio station is promoting something at a concert I’m not attending. My daughter is there, though, so I forward the text to her. Then comes a call from a contact of mine WHILE sending the text.
    As I finish the call, my son is awaiting my arrival downstairs to go fishing. Wait. Another text from another contact of mine. I’m upstairs for an online conference. Life Vest Inside is having trouble with their very first Google On Air Hangout, which I’m supposed to attend right now.
    So I wait.
    And my son continues to wait.

    Perhaps the biggest advantage of disconnecting is the excuse it gives you. If you can’t be reached, you get to pick where your attention goes and eliminate distractions from that attention.
    My attention will now shift to fishing. However…I’ll still take my cell phone on the trip. You know, in case my daughter at the concert needs something. Or my wife calls from Seattle. Or…
    Maybe I’ll just leave the phone.
    Gotta go. Just got another text.

    Note: These things actually happened. Nothing hypothetical in this reply.

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