Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
When surrounded by things that beep, buzz and otherwise bombard with their unceasing demand for attention – it can be tempting to dream of turning them all off.
If one were to hit the off button, or unplug the modem and router, what would one hear in the subsequent silence? It is tempting to imagine a flood of calm tinged with flashes of enlightenment, brief insights which promise that if one stays unplugged for long enough that a grand epiphany will come. One may even hope to suddenly feel liberated.
And yet with everything turned off what one often hears is not silence, but the orchestra that creeps in through the window – depending on your locale this may vary from the blaring of the city to the conversing of birds. In the case of the city a person may attempt to unplug, but in a place as wholly transformed by humanity as a city one remains thoroughly surrounded by the evidence of manufactured things that are distinctly still plugged in. In the case of a more pastoral setting one may feel more confident unplugging, seeing it as an opportunity to commune with a more natural setting and a chance to revel in the green, yet a momentary curative indulgence in a feeling of wildness is often little more than a periodic inoculation that prepares one for re-immersion in the city.
Regardless of where one hits the off button, however, the evidence of that which has been silenced remains. The quieted television stands as a stocky silent monolith, the suddenly still phone becomes a convenient paperweight, the laptop computer appears as a puzzle box that demands power before it divulges its secrets – turning things off does not banish them from sight or from mind. It may well be that part of the pleasure of turning all of the devices off is that it allows one to look at them just as idle material objects – instead of as the simultaneous key and manacle that provides entry and causes bondage to technological society.
Nevertheless, there is also a “just so much” element to most acts of unplugging – even as we decide to stay off the Internet (and connected devices) it is rare to completely eschew other aspects of our technological lives: the lights are still electric, the refrigerator still hums reassuringly, the faucet still dispenses water. The urge to turn off is not so much a desire to flee to a barren cave as it is an urge to momentarily get free from a technological cage – to get away from pointless e-mails, the deluge of tweets and status updates, and to pull away to safe distance from the whirlpool of the Internet that seems harder and harder to escape. And yet from the desired off line position one may very well feel surprisingly bereft insofar as – whether one likes it or not – being online has genuinely become amongst the main ways that we stay connected with each other and the world. Having turned off the Internet connection one may turn on the radio for an update on the news of the world, but even if the informational need is met one may feel bereft if they are no longer able to share these headlines in the way to which they have become accustomed. It may well be that the revelation that comes from trying to turn off is the cold epiphany that one cannot entirely turn off – unless, that is, one decides to genuinely sever connections with much of the world.
These are not so much idle speculations as the thoughts that I was busy with over the course of the last week when I repaired to a safe distance from the city and found myself staying in a place where – to put it simply – there was no Internet. The purpose of the trip was not to experience some tech-free cleanse, to see how long I could endure without logging on, or even to experiment with being offline – it was instead just a side effect of where I was staying. Likewise, as the above paragraphs allude to, though the setting may have had many pastoral aspects it remained thoroughly modern – after all, I read by electric light not by the flicker of a candle. It may well be that it was hard to fully relax into the unplugged calm as I remained on edge for news of what was going on in the many distinctly not calm sections of the country and the world, but it may equally be a result of the trip’s low tech diet being driven not by any ideology or other plan but simply by a set of coincidences. And yet, to be honest, I did not find that I particularly missed the things that beep, buzz and bombard with the demand for attention – frankly, I just missed my cats (who beep, buzz, and bombard with the demand for attention).
Turning off for a week was a fine exercise, but the lesson from it was that such occasional frugality (51 weeks on 1 week off) is not much of a response to a feeling of informational and technological overload. Nor for that matter is it much in the way of a functional ideology or critique of technology. Even the attempt to sanctify one day a month or one day a week as a sort of Sabbath seems to function as just a frail stand in for a more sturdy response. (Though such attempts to turn off the Internet certainly raise troubling questions when one considers the ways in which “the Internet of things” may make it ever more difficult to try to escape the Net.)
Instead of functioning as a monastic or rejuvenating experience one of the most interesting takeaways from getting offline is simply to recognize the jarring number of actions that have become linked to the online realm – and to see the myriad ways in which various technologies intersect with our daily lives. The epiphanies – insofar as there are any – largely come not from being offline but from the moment that one goes online again. It is in the moment of being on again, that it is easy to pick up on the clever ways in which the online realm is always nudging: news pages constantly refreshing, more tweets piling on, the next song starts streaming, the next episode begins playing. The online realm is constructed in such a way that once a person is online it is extremely easy to remain there, and to remain online, and to remain online, and to remain online, and etc…
And yet – for all of its touted salubrious effects – getting offline achieves rather little if that act in and of itself is treated as the point. But a momentary respite, good as it may be, is not a replacement for a sustained critical perspective – without the latter the former will simply produce momentary salves, which are easy to confuse with salvation in the moment. If one avoids the Internet for a couple of hours, or a day, or a week, or a day a week – but then spends the rest of the time fully submerged than that brief spell in the sun will hardly be enough time to dry off.
This is not a revelation, but sometimes a continued frustration acts as a suitable alternative.