May 14, 2004

"Who Were You Before You Were Networked?": A Koan

I somewhat cryptically mentioned, last week, that I'm going offline for a month, from approximately May 21 to June 21. During that time, I've invited several friends and colleagues to guest blog here, so there should continue to be fresh content (more on the guest bloggers in a later post). The explanation: Several months ago, I began practicing meditation. I'm not very dedicated to it at this point, but it seems useful in a lot of ways. Sitting on my meditation cushion in my home office one day, I was listening to chimes. Not Tibetan chimes or anything so fancy--each lilting set of notes was wafting out of the sound system hooked to my PowerBook on the desk behind me: Apple Mail's way of letting me know a message had arrived in my In Box. Incoming mail makes me happy (even if more than half of it is spam): It means I'm connected, I'm acknowledged. Someone wants to tell me something, ask me a question, offer a comment. Once every few minutes, the chimes would remind me of my place in the global communications network. I'm sure there's some Zen observation I could make here about either Big Mind or, conversely, about the need to let go and free what Suziki-roshi would call "monkey mind" (buried in these contradictory concepts we might find an information age koan: "Who where you before you were networked?") Without consciously thinking about it, after about ten minutes (far short of my regular meditation session) I was up off the cushion and sitting at my desk, reading email. I've been effectively networked for approximately twenty years, since my first email account as a college sophomore at Michigan Tech. As with many users, the volume and pace of my connectivity have gradually increased to the point that the majority of my life has some degree of online being, socially, intellectually, economically. I have ongoing relationships with people I know only by their online persona. I have multiple email accounts (in addition to the three primary email addresses I regularly, I have literally dozens of lesser accounts at various services and organizations). I use IM to chat with family, colleagues, students, and friends (I sometimes IM my daughter to ask her a question when she's sitting in her bedroom, just above my home offices). I maintain numerous websites and weblogs, ranging from the weblog you're reading to sites in Blackboard that I use to disseminate information in the courses I teach. When I ego-surf Google on "johndan," I get over 3,000 hits. Our family pays the majority of our monthly bills using a networked service offered by our bank. I'm a good little eCommerce participant to the tune of thousands of dollars a year (I ordered my meditation zafu and zabuton cushions from Carolina Morning Designs over the Web). When I run workshops or present papers at conferences, I often have to bring a whole separate suitcase (and a large one at that) just to transport the various computer technologies that I use during the sessions. On occasion, I'll catch myself using two different computers simultaneously, one with each hand. During complex projects or near the ends of semesters, I'll occasionally send more than fifty email messages in a single day; I often receive three times as many, even without counting spam. How much connectivity is too much? (I thought sheepishly (as my meditation cushion sat empty behind me, giggling to itself.) This much. I decided at that point to try a little experiment: What will happen if I go offline for a month? What will happen if I'm not connected to the network for thirty days? Is it even feasible? Oddly (or perhaps not so oddly), this little experiment has become increasingly difficult to orchestrate: I want to avoid simply disappearing, because that would not simply be disruptive to my own life, but also confusing and inconvenient for others who know that the best way to interact with me is over the network. At this point, in addition to the guest bloggers I've imposed on to help post to the weblog, my various family members have been recruited to monitor this gap I'm leaving (to make sure that there are no fires to put out in my online absence). Just scheduling the month offline has been very complicated, because of the multitude of ongoing projects (research, publication, committee work, workshops, etc.) that require using a computer and network (I'm running a workshop at Holy Cross next week, ironically, on teaching and working in datacloud environments). Not surprisingly, my subjectivity is constructed as a network of both online and physical forces, tangled into a cyborgian Gordian knot. And while initially I had thought I could stop using a computer, I quickly realized that this degree of luddism is virtually impossible in our culture (or at least the culture that I'm in): my truck, our telephone, ATMs, answering machines and voicemail all now contain computer chips. I didn't want to completely isolate myself from the rest of the world and trek into the Adirondacks with a tent and sleeping bag. Instead, I wanted to see the effects of going offline, off the network. So I've scaled the experiment back to simply not using a computer for a month. Who was I before I was networked? Let's see. I'll be online for around another week, during which time I hope to get some of the guest bloggers up and running, troubleshooting the system as necessary before I disconnect. Posted by johndan at May 14, 2004 01:31 PM | TrackBack