Being offline

I am coming around to the line of thinking that someday in the future, people will pay a premium to be disconnected and offline. I heard it first articulated in Brian Eno’s 2003 seminar at the Long Now foundation (audio & pdf available here):

Q: David Battino: 50 years from now when we all have broadband
receivers embedded in our skulls, will we be paying for silence instead of

BE: Yes absolutely right.
I’ve done my best actually in that respect in making music that has less
and less sound in it. I’m getting there. Actually in the 1950s I heard
there used to be jukeboxes in America that had one silent disc, so if you
wanted a bit of peace, then you put your dime in and you dialled that
number and you got three minutes of silence. I’d love to get a collection
of those records wouldn’t that be fantastic! A jukebox where that’s all
you had on, different varieties of silence.

I’ve been thinking about it this evening because of this column by Shalom Auslander I saw mentioned in the Bookslut blog:

I wonder if the one who came up with the term “Information Age” was being sarcastic, as the information it has come to refer to is not simply a burden and a chore—though that would be bad enough—but a lie, a distraction. This information that leads to knowledge, it is not information about the nature of man, new theories of existence, fascinating insights into our own tortured human ways that will allow us to become a deeper, more whole species. It’s about mudslides in India, bombs in Sri Lanka, diseases in Africa, child molesters in Florida. Jack drinks heavily, and doesn’t want to talk about it; he maintains destructive relationships with family members who hate him, and doesn’t want to talk about it; he knows which issues were discussed at the G8, and is closely monitoring the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those things he wants to talk about. He is not the exception. Most people would rather look outward than inward, but it seems to me this Information Age bullshit has cloaked avoidance in virtue and made the distraction an obligation. I went cold turkey five years ago. No news—no television, no magazines, no newspapers, no blogs, no op-eds, not even, sadly, The Onion. I’ve never been happier. This is the headline I hope to see on the Drudge Report one day, the day before the blessed end of the Age of Pseudo-Information, just below Matt’s Flashing Red Light Of Pseudo-Importance: GO ON WITH YOUR LIVES! STOP WORRYING ABOUT THE TRAINWRECK IN BANGLADESH—YOU’RE THE TRAINWRECK… YOUR WIFE IS HAVING AN AFFAIR AND YOUR SON HATES YOU… THERE ARE NO ANSWERS HERE… DEVELOPING…

Biting the hand that feeds, I know.

5 thoughts on “Being offline”

  1. I find the date of the Auslander column suspicious. He stopped reading/viewing news four days before 9/11? I doubt it. It’s really, really hard to avoid all news. If nothing else, people talk about it, so you pick up a thing or two.

    I do my best, though. Definitely no TV news, unless something earthshattering has happened; I do read the New York Times now and again. And I’ve been ignoring the news for a lot more than five years.

  2. I used to keep CNN or NPR on all the time. There was also a weird period when I listened to a lot of talk radio. Eventually, I realized that all of that information just drowned out whatever came before. As a result, I was knowledgeable about things I had heard recently, but eventually I would forget about it.

    I still like to listen to NPR on the way to work and I don’t completely ignore the news, but I’m a lot more at ease now that I’m not bombarded with it. I get less information now, but I feel like I retain more.

  3. You’re right that that’s suspicious; I was a little suspicious of how specific he was about things he didn’t know, like the re-emergence of the Taliban, which, if he had really caught absolutely no news since 9/11, he would have thought was still in power!

    I also don’t completely buy that people would rather look outward than inward. Quite the contrary, I think people are pretty self-absorbed.

    But I think he’s onto something about the distracting nature of the internet, about substituting a sense of connection for actual communication, about how being connected can actually impair one’s thinking.

  4. When Eno spoke about getting a collection of silent records, the audience laughed loudly. Clearly music pollution was on their minds. (The other funny moment was when someone asked Eno if he planned to release another vocal album, whereupon he told the sound guy to play Music for Airports. After several minutes of enduring its ooohing and cooing in the background while he was answering other questions, Eno wheeled on the hapless engineer and quipped, “Will you turn that shit off?!”)

    I was then in the midst of interviewing people for my book, The Art of Digital Music, and asked several others to predict if we’d soon be paying for silence. Most of them agreed, though one, a Hollywood talent agent, started screaming at me.

    He argued that my problem wasn’t that there was too much noise out there but that I wasn’t filtering it well enough: “My family does not do anything but watch TiVo, which is exactly only the stuff we want. And if you had a TiVo….” I didn’t get a chance to tell him that I don’t even have a TV.

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