Forget distractions like drones, autonomous vehicles and automated check-outs. There is a single foundational technology that has completely changed the way we work, shop and live over the past 25 years, and the transformation is not yet complete. In the same way that we remember the 1850s as an era of steel and locomotives, historians will remember the early 21st century as the era of the internet.
The internet has in short order reshaped concepts of distance, communication and influence. It has created new business models that are now operated by the biggest companies in the world. Subtlety, the internet has woven itself so inextricably with our lives that, for people like me, to do without it for a day would be like the surgical removal of a limb.
‘So, are you up for it?’. Against my better judgement, I said yes. The call had come in from a friend at WiredScore, the connectivity certifier. There was some pretext about science which sounded vaguely compelling, and the date seemed suitably far in the future that it might not happen. And so, I agreed to go ‘unplugged’ for a day.
The week before the anointed date, I started to receive a drip of more formal comms, reminding me about my commitment, and providing some tips and rules. It was at this point that the penny dropped about how challenging this was going to be. I mean, it’s not like I’d signed up to run a marathon or climb Everest or anything genuinely world changing. I’m talking first-world, marginally-uncomfortable, might-get-some-social-media-credits type challenging. Nevertheless, it required me to think a bit.
So, what does doing without the internet actually mean? The first thing that springs to mind is no web-browsing. For someone who does a lot of web-based research, this felt pretty crippling. But then, no e-mails. This is the main way I communicate with people (face-to-face requires too much effort…). And then, all of those things that in some way interface with the internet, like social media… At this point I try to put it out of my mind and ask PA, Natassia for help.
The day before the task she prints out my diary and produces copies of maps to each of my meetings. (She is brilliant). I then go home and turn off all of the Wi-Fi and mobile data connections for my iPhone, iPad and laptop. This is surprisingly more difficult than you’d think; they need a simpler ‘what-were-you-thinking’ button. My out of office goes on, saying that I will in fact be in the office, and giving directions to my desk.
The day started badly, when my baby daughter woke up at 4.30. At this point I reach for my phone without opening my eyes. OK, this isn’t a great habit, but it’s better than the cigarettes which it replaced. Sky News doesn’t open at all, and the other news and social feeds are locked on their content from yesterday. I decide to get up and get the early train.
No way of checking whether the train is on time (always a risk where I live), I drive to the station and hope for the best. On the platform I grab a copy of the Metro for the first time in 10 years; I soon realise why I haven’t read the Metro in 10 years and turn back to my phone. It’s at this point I realise that pretty much none of my 100+ apps work; most seem to require an internet connection to even get through the load screen. Eventually I find a copy of the original Angry Birds (now a digital antique), which I play for 5 minutes – it’s actually pretty good, I remember.
Arriving at my desk, I realise that there is a risk of accidental internet connection by connecting to my dock. No problem; I’ll Google how to avoid this happening. But of course, that was never going to work. It reminds me of the instructional VHS cassettes supplied with early video players, which told you how to plug them in. Seriously, what was the point? I end up just pulling out the ethernet cable.
By the end of my first meeting at 10.00, a few people have come up to me to discuss my out-of-office. Mainly, this is curious (/’I’m glad it’s not me’) kind of conversations. A few other discussions remind me of the day that Homer Simpson went into work wearing a pink shirt, was summarily labelled by Mr Burns as a ‘free-thinking anarchist’ and sent for psychological assessment. They joke a little, but I know that they’re not joking. They’re thinking, ‘who signed off on your complete lack of productivity today?’
Anyway, the joke’s on them, I thought, contemplating how productive I was going to be without the distraction of emails. First things first, let me pull up that doc that I was working on on my iPad on the train. I’d had to save it to the local disk, as obviously no cloud access, and now I was stumped because I couldn’t email it to myself. USB? No chance. And I have honestly no idea what cable would allow me to transfer data from an iPad to my laptop. OK, I’ll park that and go on to something else.
Here’s the good bit. I honestly ploughed through 3 papers in a couple of gaps between meetings assisted by the complete lack of annoying notifications popping up on my phone or laptop. There is no chance that I would have achieved this otherwise, I said to myself feeling mildly vindicated.
The same was not true of meetings. Firstly, at C&W we have moved our telephony over to VOIP and conduct almost all remote meetings on Skype. I have quite a lot of international calls, where content is shared live on screen. Today, I dial in from a star phone, rather than my laptop and pretend that this isn’t cheating. (It is). I can’t see any of the content and have to pull up the attachment sent to me yesterday, trying to guess which slide the other callers are talking about.
Halfway through the meeting I get a call on my mobile from the person I’m due to meet next. They had requested an earlier start time, but for some reason the by now rather dog-eaten paper copy of my diary hadn’t updated to alert me to this. I explain and apologise. Whilst looking at my phone, I notice that all of my text are now green and not blue.
With the work-day complete, I head off for a wash-up and beers with the WiredScore team, and meet some other victims. I manage to find my way to the bar OK with the assistance of my paper map, but reflect on how Google maps and TomTom has completely absolved me of the need to know where anywhere is. I wonder how much better I would know London if I didn’t have these to rely on.
Did I cheat? Other than the voice call, no, I was pretty religious in the task. However, the fact that it was only for one day definitely helped. All of my backdated offline emails were available to me, as were cached webpages, diary entries and attachments that had been sourced initially from or via the internet. If this had been for a week, the wheels would have come off.
There is a consistent theme in the wash-up. Generally, participants felt impaired by not having the internet; however, silver linings were found in a greater ability to focus. I echo these. The major benefit of the internet is the ability to share ideas and information anywhere, anytime. When you think about it, this is a massive paradigm shift, which has and will continue to have significant impacts on the economics of real estate. The challenge and self-reflection which comes out of the day is that despite this major and enlightening advance, it is up to us how we choose to engage with it. For too many of us (myself included) we choose not to put a filter on the information we receive. I will from now on, I promise myself half-heartedly.
The first filter will be a temporary block on receipt of all digital information at various points in the day, at times when I want to concentrate. Too often the first thing I do when I come out of a meeting is check my emails, which leads to sending emails, which leads to more emails. I will be more productive by choosing my tasks, rather than responding to those that happen to arrive in my inbox.
The second filter is that I will be more selective on the type of content that I receive. On the train home, I realise that scrolling through endless threads of people shouting contrary views at each other on Twitter, and looking at heavily filtered pictures of people humble-bragging about their holiday on Instagram isn’t the best use of my time. I realise that borderline OCD requires me to check my phone compulsively every few minutes, and I can’t leave red bubble notifications unchecked. I find this sensation easing over the course of the day, and if I stick to this, I anticipate an improvement in mindfulness.
Being a few beers in, I get off the train and stand at the taxi rank (no Uber option), and grab 20 mins of TV (not Netflix) before falling asleep wondering how many emails will have hit my inbox when it goes back online tomorrow. (It was a lot).