Life Without the Web
Five columns down and five to go. I hope that by the time my four-month hiatus from the Web is over, I'll have some type of summary statement. For now, here's the inconclusive, contradictory halftime report.
Leslie from Virginia wrote to me to say, "The only problem I have with your plan is that your wife (poor thing!) will still be online." Christina from Athens, Greece, writes, "Please give my support to your wife." Peter from Tucson minces no words: "Married men are such losers."
Why the assumption I'm a cad? Or that my wife would put up with any nonsense from me? Rachel's doing some more online bill paying and is now the sole e-mail receiver regarding our kids school and recreation (but she was the point person on this front before I unplugged). Basically, this is pretty much a nonissue for her. Her main complaint is that she can't stream Glee on my computer. (Hers is too slow for Hulu.) Mostly it's been a positive experience on her end. She thinks I'm "more present, which is usually a good thing."
A few weeks ago, when I read my itinerary wrong and missed my train from Seattle to Portland (for a signing that evening at Powell's) my wife jumped online, checked the schedule, and got me a seat on the next train. Standing on a street corner in Portland looking at a map, I was offered unsolicited help by a kind passerby. He whipped out his iPhone and within minutes hooked me up with directions and bus info. Internet use: I may not be driving but I don't mind getting rides.
I received a letter from a mom saying that the Internet undermines her instincts as a parent. Whenever her child is suffering from a social or physical malady, no matter how slight, she immediately goes online to gather information. But reading about all the horrible things that could be wrong with her child generates intense anxiety.
With the Internet, a second opinion (and a third, and a fourth) is always a click away, and after a while you're just left with the feeling that chances are, what you are doing is wrong. This may sound like an odd comparison, but since I've been offline, I enjoy drawing a lot more, and I think this has to do with my limited exposure to other cartoonists' work. I'm never more acutely aware of my own art's shortcomings than after a quick spin around the Internet looking at other cartoonists' efforts. For the most part, I am registering only the most superficial aspects of various classic and contemporary comics, but I am nevertheless left with a heightened sense that they've figured out something vital that has eluded me.
I've always loved how superhero origin stories speak so directly to the era from which they sprung. What was Superman but a Jewish refugee from a world that was destroyed trying to reinvent himself in America? The Fantastic Four were born from Cold War paranoia: They were bombarded by cosmic rays attempting to get to space before the "Commies" beat them to it.
So here's my stab at a superhero for the Internet Age: In the late 1980s, an idealist young computer programmer dreams of world peace. He is called "The Connector" and believes the World Wide Web will bring about a global golden age. Fast-forward 20 years: The world is no safer. The Connector's only son, bombarded by Internet rays for two decades, transforms into the creature known as Ennui! His battle cry: "Been there, done that." The Connector can't believe what he has wrought, but he refuses to admit defeat. He challenges his son to help him save the world. Ennui isn't buying any of it. And he is too busy texting, anyway. Civilization hangs in the balance.
Whether it's a sports score, a book I want to get my hands on, or tuning into Fresh Air anytime of day, I can no longer search online and find immediate satisfaction. I wait for the morning paper, a trip to the library, or, when I can't be at my radio at 3 p.m., just do without. I thought this would drive me crazy, but it hasn't. Anticipation itself is enjoyable and perhaps even mitigates disappointing results. I don't seem to mind as much when the Mets don't win (often) or Dave Davies is subbing for Terry Gross and is interviewing an obscure jazz producer.
In the two months since I've been unplugged, I have been experiencing more and more moments of synchronicity—coincidental events that seem to be meaningfully related. Today, after finishing the first phase of a graphic-novel project that is based on the life of a fictional member of the Weather Underground, I received in the mail an unsolicited copy of a graphic novel about teaching written by William Ayers. Earlier in the week, at the exact moment I started working on a drawing of a monkey (see above), Michael Chabon started talking about Planet of the Apes—I was listening to his audio book Manhood for Amateurs. I know this type of magical thinking is easily dismissed, but I keep having moments like this. So how do I explain it? Are meaningful connections easier to recognize when the fog of the Internet is lifted? Does it have to do with the difference between searching and waiting? Searching (which is what you do a lot of online) seems like an act of individual will. When things come to you while you're waiting it feels more like fate. Instant gratification feels unearned. That random song, perfectly attuned to your mood, seems more profound when heard on a car radio than if you had called up the same tune via YouTube.
I wanted this week's drawings to reflect this idea of finding meaning in seemingly random events. I was puzzling over how to approach this when I received an Americana Auction catalogue in the mail. All of this week's illustrations are drawn from photos of auction items listed in the catalogue.
I am reading more since I've gone offline, a lot of it relating to my experiment. I was sent an advance copy of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr and picked up a copy of The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz. The Shallows is a heady account of how human innovation—from maps to moveable type to the Internet—has changed the way humans think. In Sabbath World, Shulevitz attempts both to define and to carve out holy space in her hectic, overloaded life, despite her uneasy relationship with her religious tradition.
Both of these books were great reads, but if I had to choose one book that gets at the heart of how the Internet has transformed our society, it would be Feed,the 2004 YA novel by M.T. Anderson. It's a chilling and funny coming-of-age story set in a dystopian future where the Internet is fed directly into the brain from practically the moment of birth. I'd recommend this book to every human being older than 14.
Besides reading more, I am more productive when at my office. Letters get written, calls get returned, and reports get finished. I am drawing more. My days don't begin and end with me staring at my laptop. I don't constantly feel humiliated by my inability to refrain from compulsively checking my e-mail. I feel less anxious as I move through the day. A certain texture has returned to my life.
Am I drawing more because I am offline, or is it because of my Slate deadlines? I don't miss my e-mail, but is it because I've received more than 130 real letters? My publisher has been arranging talks, signings, and interviews to help promote Market Day. This past Tuesday, I talked to Diane Sawyer about what it's like to be offline for ABC news online. I am anything but cut off right now. I will have to do this experiment again when I don't have a book out. And not write a column for Slate about it, either. But please don't cut me off yet! Send your letters to:
The Center for Cartoon Studies
attn: James Sturm
P.O. Box 125
White River Junction, VT 05001