I was delighted to see the front page New York Times article today. Not only did it describe one of my favorite stretches of the San Juan River west of Mexican Hat, Utah — a river that gave me one of my first tastes of the wilderness as an eight year-old — but it also made a splashy introduction of some points that I think everyone will take more and more seriously in the next decade or so. Namely, that being constantly online shapes the way we think and process information, and that sometimes, we have to get offline.
I see these realizations — about 15 years into the internet revolution, but really at the cusp of the historical moment when the internet becomes a part of almost everything we do — as an encouraging sign that we are actually going to make the digital age something useful rather than soul-crushing.
If you’re too lazy to read the article, the gist of it is that some neuroscientists went into the wilderness on a rafting trip to study the effects on the brain of being away from constant information updates. Some of them posit that we are better learners and focusers when we don’t have constant digital stimuli.
But I don’t need no durn scientist to tell me that. In fact, I just came off of a four-day solo journey through the Sierras in California where I did some major mental rehabilitation. By day four, as I picked may way down a snowfield at 12,800 feet and gazed out across a desert as vast as an ocean, it became very plain that being away from the iPhone, the email and the internets had done me a great deal of good. Even in that short time, it helped recalibrate my priorities, reinvigorate my creative mojo, and re-instill me with a sense of wonder.
I’m not trying to sound like a latter-day John Muir here, but I predict a new awareness of the importance of being offline that may have some parallels to the wilderness awakening in which he played an important role at the start of the last century. That awakening, which helped result in the American National Park system, was partly a reaction to the increasingly stifling and mechanized lifestyle of an industrial, consumption-based, urban society.
Incidentally, living on the internet is a lot like living in New York City. There is a pervasive sense of urgency. There is a sense of being at the crossroads of everything that matters — an addictive sense of immediacy, importance and relevancy. There is near constant stimulation, both enjoyable and annoying. Although utterly connected, both are also inward-looking places — in that it frequently feels that the world outside exists in a sort of dreary fog.
Notwithstanding the pleasures of both New York City and free and total information availability, these are all illusory feelings. Spend a few days off the grid, dip your toes in an icy mountain stream, huddle in a tent while lightning booms off peaks. You’ll soon realize that you don’t miss the internet, and it sure as hell doesn’t miss you. Back in civilization, your life may feel more frantic and important than ever (as a New Yorker or Twitterer with 3,396 followers or whatever) but Existence — that’s right, the Big Existence — goes on at the same pace it always has.
Here’s my prediction: in the next 5 to 20 years, there’s going to be a conscious movement to spend time offline. Various studies will corroborate the obvious fact that being constantly logged in is unhealthful. People will write essays (ahem) and organize retreats. They won’t all have to be vision-quest-ish sojourns in alpine tundra. They will just have to be offline — barbecues, camping trips, hideouts in cabins with books. There will be a push for vacations to include mandatory offline periods. Perhaps in crazy places like San Francisco, this will be enshrined in city ordinances or something.
Ironically, this movement will grow and spread through … the internet. But that, again, is kind of like New York City. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his 1932 essay “My Lost City,” upon first seeing the Empire State Building:
[I] went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood — everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora’s box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits — from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground.
Likewise, when we have built our digital existence high enough, it will help us see its limits — and we will long again for the land beyond.
Following: a relevant video clip and some pics from my trip. (For those interested, I went like this: North Lake to Piute Pass, on to Darwin Bench via Alpine Col, then back to North Lake via Lamarck Col. I spent about a day hiding from a huge thunderstorm on Darwin Bench.)