Breaking free from the net

A new trend known as "offlining" may provide a solution to web-overload. But will disconnecting from the internet even be an option in the future?
March 23, 2011
This map by Paul Butler, which illustrates Facebook connections across the globe, offers a visualisation of the future of the internet—global and unavoidable. Is the only answer a digital Sabbath?

Last year, American cartoonist James Sturm spent four months disconnected from the internet. He documented his experiences online for Slate (the irony was not lost on him). Sturm is not the only one seeking some time away from the online world. A month before Sturm began his journey of abstinence, marketing gurus Eric Yaverbaum and Mark DiMassimo launched, a site that has so far encouraged over 11,000 visitors to make an "offlining pledge": a promise not to use the internet or smartphones for a predefined period. This can be on a weekly basis or as a one-off. For example, the site recently suggested offlining for Valentine’s Day.

Offlining is a growing response to what is now widely recognised as a first-world social problem: we’re all addicted to the net. Addicts describe the symptoms as spending too much time in front of LCD screens and less time with their families, or trawling through an abundance of bite-size information instead of engaging with fully formed ideas. In theory, offlining should help us better manage our online and offline lives—but given our increasing dependence on the web at work and at home, is offlining really a viable option? It is one thing to pledge some offline activity every day, and quite another to quit the web for months on end. By today's standards, the latter is nothing short of ascetic.

I recently spoke to Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman, author of "Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done,” about the merits of offlining. For him, it's a good way of avoiding unproductive, endless browsing: “I’ve always thought that the really important point when it comes to information overload that it’s not the amount of time that you spend connected that matters, but the degree to which you remain in control.” But self-control still remains tricky. Did Slate’s James Sturm's offline odyssey help him to find the right online-offline balance in his life? He wrote in Slate article that he was “optimistic" that he would "eventually get to a place that feels normal” but, seven months on, he admitted to me that he still hadn't.

The offlining movement is a relatively new phenomenon, but its existence is already under threat from the looming presence of Web 3.0. Generally understood as the next big leap for the web, this is an internet that registers where you are and even understands what you are doing. It was this concept which so troubled Oliver Burkeman during his visit to the SXSW expo in Austin, Texas earlier this month. Burkeman saw an internet which offered cyber-ubiquity: a web which could be accessed everywhere by anyone, or any machine, and within which the whereabouts and actions of its users would be automatically mapped onto our geographically-sensitive online profiles. This has already begun with foursquare and similar services. "Cyberspace," it seems, is no longer a place we log on to in doses; it is increasingly just there.

Many have, of course, embraced the potential. Bob Hooker is a technologist who analyses location-based Twitter trends for the Web 3.0 Lab, tracking Twitter activity from sites around the world in real time. Via his own Twitter feed, he has recently drawn attention to heightened online activity inside Bahrain, Libya and Japan. Hooker stresses the positive effects of a truly worldwide internet culture, allowing activists to “keep that sense of shared identity that they’re not able to do in isolation.” But others remain wary of the dangers that accompany sudden technological advances. Web 3.0, for instance, seems to herald an age in which companies and governments will be falling over themselves to monitor, mine and exploit the increased personal data available online.

Yet even in a future where the web is integrated into every conceivable aspect of daily life, offlining may still be both possible and useful. As the reach of the web becomes limitless, we have to acknowledge that we ourselves have limits. Man once determined that the structure of God’s week, with the work-free Sabbath, was the best way to maintain a balanced existence. Faced with the constant presence of virtual reality, some of us are developing a taste for instigating our own, digital Sabbaths just to stay sane. As Offlining Inc founder Mark DiMassimo put it: “Do I think that some sort of perfect and complete act of offlining will be possible in the future? No, neither possible, nor necessary, nor even ideal. But limits, rituals, breaks, and anything else that helps with the conscious directing of attention toward the important things and people in life will continue to be necessary and to go a long way.”

This view is echoed by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows; the much-discussed book about how internet dependency may be damaging our ability to read and think deeply. He agreed that a “disconnection trend” is emerging, but says that it is for now a minority, “countercultural” movement. “I don't think that such breaks, in and of themselves, will do much to counter the general influence, positive and negative, of digital media over people's lives and behaviour," Carr told me. "They're like yoga or meditation courses—often important at a personal level, but not particularly meaningful at a societal level.” This makes sense: people are, of course, attract to offlining for all sorts of different reasons.

There is already plenty of software to help us control our online activity, but much of this has been for parents trying to control their children’s exposure to the web. Now, though, companies are devising products targeted at adults who want to read online without distractions or who even wish to be forced to log off when their online time is up. In an interview last month the novelist Zadie Smith described the internet-blocking program ‘Freedom’ as an essential part of her writing process. Carr thinks such programs are "peripheral today—compared to, say, the use of the distraction machine that is Facebook." However, he conceded that they could become more popular in the future. "I'm sceptical, but hopeful.”

Are these programs a passing phenomenon, or will they become an important part of the way we use the web, helping us to switch off, read without interruption and enjoy anxiety-free browsing? That many have made an online pledge to stay offline, or depend on technology to maintain independence from technology, proves that we’re only beginning to work out our relationship with the internet. Offlining is one way, at least, of controlling digital culture and ensuring that man, not machine, remains in charge.

Chris Baraniuk is the editor of The Machine Starts