Disconnecting from the Internet is Impossible

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Recently I went on a four-day sailing trip along the coast of Connecticut and Rhode Island. We chartered a 46’ boat from Mystic, Connecticut and sailed to Block Island, Newport, and back to Point Judith before returning the boat on the end of the fourth day. We left our slip with no preset course. All we packed was four days of clothing that none of us really ended up changing into – good thing the ocean breeze was strong.

I let my parents and girlfriend know that they probably wouldn’t hear from me much while I was away, but not to worry: none of us really knew how to sail other than one guy, but how hard could it be? My Uncover coworkers covered for me by handling emails and any new orders that came in. Everything was set up for me to disconnect from the Internet for a few days. My days would be filled with sailing and conversation rather than emails, instant messages and text messages.

The first day went as planned. There were seven of us on the boat and I only knew two of the people before we set off. I checked into foursquare at the Mystic Seaport Marina before we left and from there on out my intention was to only use my iPhone to snap photographs, take videos and to check in to places we visited. We sailed to Block Island that day – saw a 50+ pod of dolphins – and I was successfully able to restrain myself from pulling out my iPhone for anything else. In fact, I didn’t find that first day difficult at all.

The following day would become much more difficult. We set out to Newport, RI from Block Island. It was raining lightly when we pulled off our mooring for the six-hour sail. We were getting along wonderfully, chatting about lots of topics, and having a relaxing time. We’d lie out on the front of the boat when the sun peeked out from the clouds, but mainly we’d gather around the back of the boat where we could all sit comfortably together. This was my first time sailing and something I didn’t know beforehand was that being below deck while moving is very conducive to seasickness and definitely not advised, so we were almost always above deck.

As the second day progressed, there began to be some lulls in conversation, as there always are when there’s extended conversation, and instead of staring out into the ocean and having meditative thoughts, people started reaching in their pockets for their phones. I’m not sure who made the first move, but it seemed to progress like dominos as soon as it was silently okayed by someone. What was the rest of the world up to? Is there any breaking news? What’s on my Twitter, Facebook and Instagram feeds? Who should I text? Who should I send photographs to?

The disconnect we were all looking for as seven techies (entrepreneurs, developers and designers) tumbled to an end about twenty-four hours after setting sail. We felt the pull of the Internet as if it was a drug. It was too strong to resist, and once you give in to it, you’re done.

For the remainder of the trip, whenever there was a break in conversation, we’d all reach for our phones and check in on things. The only time you could get a respite from your phone was when it was charging in the hold of the ship. The rest of the time your phone would be in your pocket, buzzing to let you know there was something new to distract you. By the way, phone signal strength is far stronger out in the open ocean than in the heart of New York City.

That’s not to say that I don’t feel very relaxed after four days of sailing around and not having done any real work, but I’m disappointed that I didn’t do a better job of shutting the rest of the world out. I know writers have experimented with turning off all technology for weeks, months, and even a year at a time, but I don’t think the experience of turning it off for an extended period of time will ever be feasible again, and that worries me. You’d have thought that being on a boat would be the ideal place to find out, but the draw proved to be too great. Are we addicted to technology and is there anything we can or should do about it?

One obvious possibility: Head to a remote mountain where there are no signals and stay there for a long time.

But you know, we’re social beings. Maybe we don’t need to be cross-checking the social media all the time, and maybe we should do our best to take vacations from that, but we still do need to communicate with the people who matter to us.

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Spencer Fry

I’m a 29 year old entrepreneur. A Business Guy turned Programmer. Co-founder & CEO of TypeFrag ('03 - '07), Carbonmade ('07 - '11) and currently Uncover ('12+). Uncover is everything you need to start and run an employee recognition program for your company. My hobbies are squash, soccer, cooking, music, and art. You should follow me on Twitter.

Comments

10 comments on “Disconnecting from the Internet is Impossible

  1. Excellent point. I try to do a digital detox at least once a week. Not sure if that’s enough? Lol.

    • Do you do it for an entire twenty four hours? I think that’d be really tough. On the weekday I need to be connected for work and then on the weekend I need to be connected to keep in touch with my friends, family and girlfriend.

      • Yes, I try to do it for 24 hours. It is usually on a Sunday, and I spend a lot of time working out on Sundays anyway. It’s my extended exercise, and have fun outside day. For example, Monday through Saturday, I only work out for one hour each morning. On Sundays, I try to do two hours. I feel so good, I just want to keep going with some type of athletic activity. It is really difficult to stay away though, and I am not always able to fully disconnect every Sunday…Speaking of working out, I feel like hitting the gym now!

      • Do you NEED to be connected, or is it just easier than making plans and sticking to them?

  2. I can relate to this all too well. About six years ago, I worked at a summer camp, where we left our phones locked in the office for a week at at time. This was before smartphones had really become popular, but even then it was a refreshing experience to be disconnected for awhile.

    Last year, I moved to the Dominican Republic, which I thought would be much more disconnected than it is, but the reality is that Dominicans love their smartphones just as much as the first world. In the past year, I lost two smartphones to random accidents and finally decided to switch back to a burner phone for awhile. I also leave my laptop at work and try to spend the evenings disconnected.

    I’ve succeeded in being more disconnected than I was, but it is still a challenge on a daily basis. I find that quiet times that are fit for meditative thoughts are like a vacuum, and they *want* to fill up by any means possible. It takes some real discipline to keep them empty, and like most disciplines, it can be really uncomfortable. But those times are also valuable and we need to be intentional about carving them out and protecting them.

    For me, it has caused me to think a lot more about buying non internet connected devices for certain functions, such as listening to music, reading books, taking photos, notes, etc. I’ve noticed how over the last few years, the internet has subtly crept into every aspect of our lives. Quite honestly, especially with recent revelations about NSA and government spying, I don’t think it belongs there.

    • Thanks for sharing your story.

      I like your idea of having non-Internet connected devices, but that sounds almost impossible to posses nowadays. I have an old Kindle, which is the only device I have that doesn’t really connect to the Internet. My iPad, iPhone, MacBook and all of my other devices connect to the Internet. There’s no escaping it for me.

      • Yeah. Recently, I started missing my old CD player boombox for it’s simplicity. All I had to do to listen to my favorite music was push two buttons. I never had to worry about software updates, crashing, bugs, hackers, connection problems or anything. I decided to buy an iPod classic so that I could have a music source that’s (mostly) disconnected from the internet. It scares me that the market seems to be providing less and less internet-disconnected devices.

        • Ah. Interesting. I too had that nostalgic feeling a month ago when I was visiting my parents and listening to their CD player. I’d thumb through their CDs to find something I wanted to listen to. It was a neat feeling.

  3. I would have to add that even if that’s true, you mentioned you did this with the come of a silent moment, I would gues the fact of been pulled to the internet is to get rid of the ackwardness of those moments, not by the need of the internet.

    You can see it everywhere with guys chatting at a cafe, then a silence, and everyone runs to the internet. The thing is that everyone, everywhere has got a social shield for ackward silence.

    • That’s very true. I guess I don’t remember what I use to do during an awkward silence when I didn’t have a cell phone? Were there fewer awkward silences back then because people were forced to keep the conversation going?