These days, engineers are working hard to make our network connections faster and more reliable. In this issue, David Schneider reports that communications satellite company Iridium is upping its maximum data rate fourfold, and Clark T-C. Nguyen suggests that mechanical components may be the way to make future wireless devices better. Information is indeed coming at us faster and in more places. But that’s not all good. In October, author Nathan Zeldes talked about the importance of getting control of this flood that threatens productivity and creativity.
For me, the only way to do get such control is to cut off my network connections, all of them, for three weeks every year.
I’ve taken this annual three-week Internet sabbatical for about as long as I can remember. (I didn’t used to call it that; I used to call it vacation.) It acts as a reset button. It reminds me that looking out into the distance instead of at the computer in front of me makes a real difference in how my eyes feel; that getting my hands off the keyboard and moving around regularly is good for my body; I sit differently, stand taller. It reminds me that having time to let my mind drift, instead of being yanked from demand to demand, can lead me to new ideas.
And when I go back to the keyboard, the computer screen, the Internet, I handle it better. I force myself not to check email quite so compulsively, to take the occasional stretch break. For a while, anyway.
This year, my Internet sabbatical took me to a lake in New England and a beach in New Jersey. We’ve gone to both places for years; I can remember when the New Jersey rental didn’t have television—too remote for broadcast TV. I liked it back when we didn’t own cell phones; the rental didn’t have a landline installed, so I told potential visitors not to bother to call ahead, just come on down and look for me on the beach. Now both rentals had hundreds of television channels, thanks to satellite TV, and my cell phone means I’m never out of touch, even when I’d like to be.
But I thought I could still escape from the Internet. I just didn’t know how hard it would be to hide.
In New England this year, we rented a cabin with nine other family members and friends. I didn’t bring any devices that could get online, but among the 14 of us staying there (six of them children), we’d packed in two full-size laptops, four netbooks, and an iPhone. Good luck with that, I thought, not expecting any access beyond dial-up; hope you downloaded plenty of movies ahead of time.
It turned out I was the one surprised—the cabin had both WiFi and wired Ethernet. So folks were on their computers constantly—watching silly YouTube videos, checking email, looking at weather reports and sports scores, googling this and that and everything. Instead of the lapping of the water on the little beach, I heard the beeps of games and music from the latest viral video. And, even worse, they kept calling me to come over to the screen, as if my life would not be complete were I not to see a certain clip of extreme sailing or last night’s Daily Show.
I resolved that I would not touch a keyboard for the entire vacation; wouldn’t look at a screen if I could possibly avoid it. I was worried that once I touched a computer I’d quickly surf over to my email and would get sucked into responding and bang, I’d never be able to break away again.
It got a little tense one afternoon when my husband’s computer wouldn’t log on to the wireless. Since I’m tech support in the family, he asked me to try to fix it. “I’m not touching the computer,” I said, “but I think the thing to do would be to go to the Apple menu, open system preferences, look at your Internet connection settings, and switch them to manual and then back to automatic, which will force it to reacquire the DHCP or something like that. Anyway, it should fix it.” (I could feel my little brain cells click into non-vacation mode, and I wasn’t liking it.)
He held the computer out to me. “It’d only take you a minute to fix it.” I kept my arms at my sides, and a cousin jumped in to help him. (Thank you, Jeff.)
I figured this torture would only last a week, because their was no way our landlord in New Jersey was going to have hooked our shabby but much-loved beach rental up to the Internet. I was right about that, what I didn’t count on was new community wifi—slow, but it worked in most of the rooms of the house. I was not pleased. I like listening to the ocean from the screened in porch, and find the street noise and occasional group house party sounds only occasionally irritating—but having someone out there tap tapping on the keyboard was sure to drive me nuts. (And I couldn’t keep them off the porch; the signal was strongest there.)
The temptation to get on line grew. My oldest son was not traveling with us, instead, he was with a school group performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And he hadn’t been calling. However, other folks on the trip were posting pictures online, so we could Internet stalk him to see if he was OK. I caved and looked at the photos twice while my husband paged through them—I did stick to my resolution not touch the keyboard. I realized afterwards that I would have been fine waiting until I got home, the photos didn’t tell me anything other than he had indeed made it to Scotland.
Like TV did, and phone did, the Internet is invading my vacation space. And pretty soon there’s going to be no place to hide.
Photo: John Lund/Paula Zacharias/Getty Images
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.