In between leaving my last Chicago apartment and moving to Portland, I lived with a friend for three months — in a house, without Wi-Fi. It was a beautiful home Christina had purchased in 2009 in a then up-and-coming neighborhood. She gutted and renovated it, and was proudest of the kitchen. This area boasted a bar, custom kitchen cabinets to accommodate her lean 5’9” stature, and stainless steel appliances. Elsewhere in the house she diligently picked paint colors and wood trim and, in the master bath, installed the biggest bathtub I’d ever seen in real life. It was the perfect amenity-filled modern Chicago home in every way, aside from the fact that it lacked the one thing even a barely-housed gutter punk in an empty Wicker Park apartment requires.
She found she didn’t need the Internet; she was a few years older than me, and had been blessedly grandfathered into an unlimited data plan on her phone, circa 2011. If she needed something, she looked it up on her ancient Android. She had no computer in the house. I would always find her with a book on the couch when I came in, her living room free of screens aside from a TV she left off when the Bears weren’t playing.
I knew she didn’t have the Internet before I moved in, and I told myself it might be a nice change of pace. In anticipation of this loss, I opted for Spotify Premium so I could have offline access to some of the music I’d grown dependent on for writing. I’d get a lot more done without Facebook distracting me, I thought; I’d certainly read more.
I did not – instead, I sat at my laptop with a blank Word document open and absentmindedly tried to open Google Chrome, over and over again. I looked at Facebook on my phone. I read one book the first week there and never bothered to start a second. Something had happened to me, and I no longer had the attention span for a hardcover book, no matter how interesting the subject matter.
I’d been spoiled by podcasts and audio books, and words on glowing screens. I used to journal, but now I just blog. Sometimes I miss it.
But then other times, like when I move, I curse myself for refusing to get rid of the filled notebooks on top of filled notebooks, my high school and college journals. They sit in perpetually unpacked boxes, a pile of spiral bindings of varying size. When my dad moved from my childhood home a few years ago, I had to actively choose to keep them, but I can’t bear to open a single one. I hate reading my old writing, even when “old” sometimes means an essay I wrote six months earlier.
These days, technology houses all of my writing, whether it’s essays saved in Google Drive or loose book chapters on my MacBook desktop.
“How do you get anything done?” I asked Christina one Sunday afternoon.
She was covered in dirt to her elbows. She had spent three hours in her garden that morning and didn’t look like she thought much of my question.
“Sorry,” I said quickly, “I just meant, how do you work without the Internet?”
“I don’t,” she said. “I work at work.”
Technology is how I keep people close. I was dating a guy whose phone stopped receiving my texts. At first I thought it was a line on his part, but then he proved it, and showed me how, even when our twin iPhones sat side by side on my coffee table, his remained unmoved by messages from mine. This was the beginning of the end, and we knew it.
I have friends with whom I only communicate over email, or text, or Facebook or Instagram. I talk to one friend throughout the day on Gmail chat, trading links and office annoyances. I even use Fitbit to keep in touch now, messaging friends within the app during step challenges. As long as talking on the actual telephone isn’t your platform, I can keep track of you.
Not having the Internet at my fingertips was supposed to be liberating. Instead, it made me hyperaware of how much I rely on it. And for what? To refresh social media feeds on loop? To watch episodes of Gilmore Girls I’ve seen countless times already?
I started stealing away to the closest source of free Wi-Fi near Christina’s house – the Burger King on our block. As far as Burger Kings go, it was a pretty nice one. Like much of the neighborhood and Christina’s house, it had been recently remodeled. It looked more like a coffee shop than a place whose specialty was selling chicken fries, complete with framed posters of a happy chicken advertising them. Why was that chicken so happy, I wondered?
The Burger King also had flat-screen TVs in the seating area. Two of them too close together often showed the same channel, but played at just a split second off from each other, giving a creepy echo effect. Once, when I forgot my headphones, I had to finish an essay through a demonic-sounding re-run of Modern Family.
The owner began to recognize me ad remember my coffee order.
I started going there on Tuesday nights, between work and roller derby practice. I made a Google Docs list each week of what I hoped to get done and looked forward to these crunch-time writing and accomplishing sessions. I found that once I was there, I didn’t want to waste any time – I knew I only had a three-hour block and once it was gone, it was gone for a whole week.
I didn’t refresh Facebook. I didn’t half-heartedly check Twitter. I drank iced mochas as I wrote, and then I sent pitches to editors and completed essays to sites I write for. I created a book outline. I wrote an intro chapter. I wrote and then kept writing, with laser focus. I did it for weeks. I got more done in those weekly sessions than I did in the three or four months before I moved to the Wi-Fi-less house.
Burger King became my office and I knew that when I was there, I was there to work. Some gears in my brain managed to switch, and I trained myself well, at last. When I was done and practice was over, I’d go back to the house and have actual conversations with my roommate over wine, or call my dad. It was nice.
Disconnecting didn’t mean the things I thought it was going to. Christina will almost certainly never get the Internet, and I will probably never live another three months without it. We both live full lives, and we liked being around each other as roommates during a strange waiting period in my mine.
Outside of her house, and reunited with Wi-Fi, I have to make myself remember to shut my laptop down, pick up a book, or have a glass of wine with a friend.