The World From Off-Grid

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When I first started blogging fourteen years ago, I always gave myself a month off in August. I’d never worked as hard as a journalist before, and the absorption of so much information together with the expenditure of so much energy and attention made me long for the empty days of late summer. And, of course, when I look now at the kind of blog I produced back then, it seems like a luxurious well of indolence. In a regular month, I’d write 70 posts; now the number is around a thousand  – made possible by the team that now edits, creates and curates this blog. If the ratio of time off to blog-posts were calculated, even a month off now is really a week off back then. The exhaustion is more extreme; the recovery longer; the pace ever-faster.

It is fashionable to speak of the end of blogs these days, but in fact, almost everyone now has a blog, it seems to me. Everyone’s Facebook page is a blog of sorts; Twitter is a more efficient way of showering the world with little links and ideas (aka blogging like Glenn Reynolds, who was, in retrospect, a tweeter as a blogger); Instagram makes everyone a photo-blogger and aggregator. And so the month off becomes, in fact, much more necessary – and yet far more elusive. I get to take a month off because I own this thing – but it is not lost on me that, these days, that is almost a fathomless luxury. And to go not simply off-grid, but off-off-grid (in a place where no Internet signal can be found) suggests the desperation for rest and peace that we now all routinely experience.

So what do I see from off-off- the grid? I don’t see our virtual lives as chimerae, or imposters, or fakes. Like David Roberts, I see them as often rich aspects of our social lives, more accessible to the introvert (ahem), and opening up new avenues of communication and understanding. Roberts channels Montaigne here:

I don’t have any illusions about the inherent moral/spiritual superiority of meatspace friends and interactions. I don’t view my online life as some kind of inauthentic performance in contrast to a meatspace life lived as the Real Me. I can trace a great deal of the richness in my life back to digital roots.

The fact is, all our interactions are performances, even those interactions we experience as purely internal (that internal monologue). They are all shaped by larger cultural and economic forces. That’s because human beings are social creatures, not contingently but inherently. We are always ourselves in relation to someone or something; interacting with others is how children form their sense of being separate, autonomous agents. There is no homunculus, no true, authentic, indivisible self or soul underneath all the layers of social intercourse. It’s social all the way down.

I don’t think I’d go that far – there are things called genes, after all – but I do share his rejection of the notion that virtual life is inherently worth less than real life.

The trouble is that virtual life is like a cuckoo in the real life nest; it crowds out our real lives by seeming to replace them with something more addictive, compulsive, and energizing. And it requires discipline to keep it in its valuable, but delimited, space.

The trouble with one big off-grid break, in other words, is that it can become a means to be more effective at the virtual stuff once you get back to it. You get the rest and the perspective you need but only to dive back into the online rush. Our real lives become merely means to perpetuate our virtual lives; our play is designed to buttress work rather than to exist for its own sake. And those virtual lives distort us and exhaust us.

This seems to me to have a particular bite when it comes to my line of work. The president has been criticized for seeming to blame social media for exaggerating a sense of global crisis by broadcasting every single destabilizing incident in the world to everyone in the world, generating narratives and emotions that can overwhelm steady or sober analysis. But I think he’s onto something. To take the last month. All I hear from people is the sense that the world has been falling apart. And I’m not denying the genuineness of the feeling. But when I ask myself what has changed since I took off, I see nothing truly new. Russia continues to dick around with eastern Ukraine; the latest Sunni insurgency in Iraq has been beaten back a bit, but is still strong; the militarization of the police in the US has been more fully understood after Ferguson (Radley Balko, your hour is now); and the president should never, ever wear a tan suit.

Does that sound too calm an analysis? Maybe, and it usually takes a little time for me to acclimate myself to the news cycle and the conversation. So give me some time to get excitable again. But I’d wager the only reason I feel this way is that I was not pressed up against the window of unfolding history, trying to figure it out every minute of every day. Which perspective gets things right? A balance, surely, of the two. And a balance we have not yet mastered.

(Photo: a back route to Black Rock City, Nevada)