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October 02, 2008

Life in the slow lane

by Josh Bernoff

Sossano_phoneI recently got back from a three-week vacation in Northern Italy. In the process, I learned about what it feels like to be a little connected – instead of constantly broadband connected with multiple devices. And that was revealing.

From what I’ve seen businesspeople who go on vacations tend to have two philosophies. 1. Disconnect completely, or 2. Stay as connected as possible.

I don’t fall into either of these categories. I like to connect every day or two, download emails, and respond to the ones that need a quick response or delegation. This keeps me from being hit with a huge wad of thousands of messages when I get back and allows me to defend myself from people trying to schedule me in Madison, Wisconsin

on a Monday after a week of hellish travel. It doesn’t feel like real “work” to me since it takes maybe half an hour every day or two and I skip it if I’m not in the mood. My out of office message tells people I won’t be available and who to contact, since I make no promises about reading email.

My family likes to rent homes and apartments rather than hotel rooms, because it’s roomier and lets us get connected to the way people really live. But we picked places based on how nice they were, not how connected they were. So I got a series of new Internet experiences.

We spent a few days each in Milan and Venice. Neither place had a phone, let alone Internet. I ended up finding spots in courtyards where I could connect to an open WiFi signal, which I located with my iPhone. (I thought it was sort of cool to sit in a courtyard in Venice, on the ground in a courtyard three meters from a canal, and download emails.) In rural Sossano, where we spent two weeks, there wasn’t an Internet café within 45 minutes, so I used dial-up. The phone you see above, which was actually on the desk in Sossano, should give you a clue as to the level of connection possible. On a good day I got 33 kbps using an RJ-11 adapter I got in the local supermarket. (Before any Italians get upset, yes, I know there is plenty of good broadband in Italy, it just wasn’t in the places we rented.)

I bought the smallest possible data roaming package for my iPhone, and used it sparingly.

So what’s it like to be a little connected?

First, you actually think before connecting. You think before clicking. At dial-up speeds, clicking in the wrong place can cost you 5 minutes. That’s five minutes I could have spent in the garden relaxing. So I started to think a lot about my Web use. I didn’t send big files to people, and I didn’t read the ones they sent – having all that stuff in the cloud and/or in a wiki would have been much better. The frictionless Net we’re all used to was gone, and I began to realize just how much the Net’s ability to forgive a 10 MB mistake –typing the wrong URL, clicking in the wrong place, sending the wrong file – is a big part of what we do. When bandwidth is free, you can try nearly anything. The fear is gone. I began to think that fear-less Internet, not wireless Internet, is what makes the whole interconnected world go ‘round.

Second, I gave up the real-time interaction elements of the Net. I searched Twitter from time to time, and then responded the only way I could without spending 50 cents a text-message – using the Twitter Web interface on dial-up. (Twittering on dial-up works fine, except your brain keeps going “this is weird” in the background.) The connected world got along fine without without my omnipresence, and I got along fine without its. This may say as much about me as it does about the Web. But ask yourself: is your habit of constantly getting back to everyone as soon as they tweet, email, or respond on your blog really benefiting them – or you? I think I trained a few people to find alternatives to my instant availability, and that’s a good thing.

Third, I began to appreciate uncluttered, video- and Flash-free Web pages. Thank you, Google. If “Skip Intro” aren’t your least favorite words in the English language, they will be once you get forced to use dial-up.

I’m not ready to give up broadband, or my iPhone, or email – I was happy to return to my connections and because I’d put out a few fires while I was away, it wasn’t a tough transition. I don’t really want to live life in the slow lane. But I’m not so sure that this ultraconnected lifestyle we all live and work in maximizes happiness or productivity. I’m going to continue to connect to you all on my own terms. How about you?


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Brett Tilford

Cool experience and it sounds like you learned a few good lessons. My brother just returned from 3 weeks in France and he had the exact same challenges.


Unfortunately, we often have these problems in our daily working life. If on one hand you can find different ways to be connected or change your 'connecting style', on the other hand we have to afford such an important problem as digital divide!


Hi, you are right! but we try to preserve your life quality, taking a true break from webcoholic life!!

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