The International Writers Magazine: Comment

My Internet Diet
Charlie Dickinson looks a for way out of the web

In a recent month, our Dharma teacher suggested we take one routine daily activity and do it differently. He gave the example of eating with one's non-dominant hand--switching your fork from right to left (or vice versa). It was this idea of recasting a routine and seeing it anew that led me to contemplate an Internet Diet.

Why an Internet Diet? For a few years, I've been concerned about the exploratory but often lost hours spent surfing the Internet evenings and my days off. Some of this behavior I excused because at work I don't have a desk job with the inescapable computer (I reshelve books at a library). While Web surfing need not be wholly time sunk, I am wary of the Internet's potential for addiction. My particular weakness was downloading free software (from trusted sources), trying, then usually discarding the programs. Others might find a comparable Internet compulsion for downloading mp3 audio files, with but a fraction of the songs ever to be heard.

To be sure, some "mindless" Web surfing can be a playful education. But for one who first used e-mail in 1989 and visited the original WWW at CERN before it closed to the public in the early 90s, I think I'm a bit beyond the neophyte stage. I've been using the Internet long enough to know addiction when I see it.
An Internet Diet would be my way of letting this addiction go.

The rules were simple. I would not connect my laptop to our Internet service provider for the month, allowing but three specified exceptions. One, uploads of posts for a blog. Two, e-mailing book reviews and essays posted at online journals. Three, uploads/downloads of data for 24/7 crunching on my laptop's SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program. None of these three tasks involved more than minutes of connect time and each was justifiable as a “giving back to the Web.” The word “diet” does imply, however, consuming some bytes from the Web, does it not? To e-mail and to check websites for needed information, I had a reconditioned Palm IIIxe (non-color display) bought for $50, accessorized by spending $15 more on eBay for a slow 33 MHz modem and a fold-up keyboard. With this underwhelming system, you might say I was taking a motor scooter out on the freeway. Feasible, but it would be a challenge.

It didn't take long to find out what worked and what was, well, impractical and close to impossible. Ten days on, I knew I wasn't going to mindlessly surf the Web for hours on the Palm two-inch by two-inch black-and-white screen. It wasn't just the modest display. It was the ravenous rate at which the Palm devoured disposable AAA alkaline batteries (alas, rechargeable AAAs lacked the juice to keep the modem working for more than minutes). So if I wanted to visit Web pages, I was going to need two fresh AAAs daily.
E-mail on the Palm, however, worked like a charm, and spared the batteries. Sending or receiving the 5K bytes for a typical e-mail message used very little battery charge. Moreover, e-mail was a purposeful activity (or "harnessed" craving) for which my interest was close to 100%.

In contrast, the largely purposeless surfing of Web pages (or "unharnessed" craving) brought something like ten or twenty times the number of bytes (say, 100K) for a page to my Palm. My interest in any particular page might be iffy, maybe less than 10%. So, addictively, I clicked on more links spidering out for yet more pages, further running my batteries down, fast. Here, in microcosm, my unsatisfied craving to read some bytes of interest appeared to grow as fast as my battery charge dissipated! So within days I quickly saw a new freedom to be gained. I had severed the pathway to the mindless Web surfing that invariably began with the words--voiced or unvoiced--"I'm just going to check my e-mail...."

Checking my e-mail on the Palm--and doing only that--I was doing something like walking outside to check my mailbox for what had come that day. It was a focussed, harnessed act, not a gateway to dissipation. Moreover, by taking my Palm away from house and laptop, I took my e-mail with me to possibly read later, and consider replies. It was like carrying letters with you.

Web surfing on the Palm, however, was out for the month of the Internet Diet. Yes, after the month was up, I went back to the laptop for Web surfing. But with wiser eyes, I saw the seduction of "a click away" to this, to that, for what it was. Just choices. I've tried to harness those choices with priorities and more focussed activity.

Certainly, the Internet is a tool for moving information here and there. But my hard-earned, battery-depleting lesson from a month on an Internet Diet showed the need for mindful consumption. Even if it's bytes from cyberspace. Just like food, I couldn't keep indulging out of habit and not expect to foster unharnessed craving and addiction. I consider the Internet Diet a strategy for managing our information ecology writ in wires, chipware, and electronic media. Taking measure of the lost hours I no longer give away, the value of attentive action is obvious: Even our postmodern, beautifully anarchistic Internet is a gift to be harnessed!
© Charlie Dickinson October 2006
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