Life Without the Web

My (Probably Crazy) Plan To Give Up the Internet
What happened when I gave up the Internet.
April 7 2010 6:55 AM

Life Without the Web

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The last 10 years have been a blur. I had two kids, produced several graphic novels, moved to Vermont, bought a house, and started a college: a two-year, MFA-granting school for cartoonists in a small railroad village. I'll be 45 years old in October, and with middle age comes the horrifying realization that my time on earth is way too short and—biologically speaking, at least—it's all down hill from here.

"It all goes by so fast," is one of the those clichés you hear throughout your life, but now, when another parent says it as we discuss the joys and sorrows of child rearing, it sounds like the most poignant thing I've ever heard. The question I've been wrestling with lately is whether it's all going by so fast because that's just the reality of middle age or because of the way I've been living my life. Specifically, I've started to wonder whether that feeling might be connected to all the time I spend online. Too often I sit down to dash off a quick e-mail and before I know it an hour or more has gone by.

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Over the last several years, the Internet has evolved from being a distraction to something that feels more sinister. Even when I am away from the computer I am aware that I AM AWAY FROM MY COMPUTER and am scheming about how to GET BACK ON THE COMPUTER. I've tried various strategies to limit my time online: leaving my laptop at my studio when I go home, leaving it at home when I go to my studio, a Saturday moratorium on usage. But nothing has worked for long. More and more hours of my life evaporate in front of YouTube. Supposedly addiction isn't a moral failing, but it feels as if it is.

As the director of a small school, I have a lot of legitimate reasons to be online. Every day, I am communicating with students, staff, visiting artists, board members, and alumni. I stay in contact with school patrons, foundation officers, and elected officials for development purposes. I am working on graphic novels and children's books with cartoonists who are scattered across the country.

But essential online communication has given way to hours of compulsive e-mail checking and Web surfing. The Internet has made me a slave to my vanity: I monitor the Amazon ranking of my books on an hourly basis, and I'm constantly searching for comments and discussions about my work. I follow the Knicks on a daily basis (perhaps my most shameful admission).

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About a month ago, I started seriously thinking about going offline for an extended period of time. I weighed the pros and cons, and the pros came out on top. Yes, I want to be more present when I am around my kids and not be constantly jonesing to check my e-mail. But I also need to carve out some space for myself to make new work. Two years ago, I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony, a retreat for artists, writers, composers, and other creative types. Although the main lodge was wired, the studios were not, and for three weeks I worked on Market Day, a graphic novel, without any intrusions. (Lunch was dropped off by my door in a basket.) I realize that I can't replicate that ideal setting for sustained focus in my daily life, but I can certainly improve my current situation.

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Another reason for going offline is to give my eye a rest. Three retinal operations in the early '90s left me with one working eye. I wear a corrective contact lens in the good eye, and in the last year have had to bump up my prescription twice. Last year, I noticed an odd speck in my field of vision and was convinced that the retina in my good eye was also in trouble. I saw my eye doctor the next day. It turned out to be nothing serious—a little abrasion that healed quickly—but it scared the crap out of me. I want to go blind making comics, not blog-hopping.

I initially wanted to go offline for a year, but that didn't seem feasible. Giving up the Web is sure to generate more work for my colleagues and for my wife, Rachel. From arranging play dates to paying bills, she will carry more of the load. The planning of a two-week family vacation to California this summer is a major hassle and most of it has to be done online. I hope to be able to make up for it in other ways. Rachel does enjoy having the final word on our Netflix queue. (I can expect to be watching more BBC miniseries for the near future.) Four months seemed like a good compromise—long enough to maybe get the Internet monkey off of my back but not so long that my wife will file for a divorce. I also hope my children won't resent me when I can't help them log on to Moshimonsters.com.

When I am feeling hopeful, I imagine all the time I'm not online will be spent engaging with my kids, filling sketchbooks with drawings, organizing the Tupperware drawer, and finally getting through that biography of Sabbatai Zevi that's been sitting on my nightstand forever. When my blood sugar is low, I imagine feeling very isolated and desperately missing the little highs that scores of daily e-mails and Google searches bring me throughout the day.

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So here I am, two days away from exile and apprehensive as hell. I am probably making a big mistake. On Friday, I will have someone change all internet passwords on my computer to prevent online access. I'll still have my cell phone, but won't use it to receive e-mail or even send texts. I know there's no going back to the pre-Internet days, but I just want to move forward a little more slowly.

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I'll do my best to document the no-fi experience with words and pictures. This way, even if I am not any wiser in four months, I'll at least have a bunch of drawings to show for it. And for the next four months, I'll be describing my life without the Web in words and pictures on Slate with a new post every two weeks. The irony of blogging about not being online doesn't escape me.

I'd love to hear reader comments but, obviously, won't be able to read any unless you mail them to me. If you do write, be advised that I may incorporate your comments into a comic or mention them in a column. I'll try to respond to as many as I can with a doodle.

The Center for Cartoon Studies
Attention: James Sturm
P.O. Box 125
White River Junction, VT 05001

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James Sturm is the director of The Center of Cartoon Studies, a MFA Degree-Granting College in White River Junction, Vt.

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