I’m giving up the Internet for Lent. I did the same thing last year.
This might at first blush seem a very odd thing to write about on a Webpage. After all, if everyone followed my lead there would be no new posts and no readers on The American Culture from February 22 until April 7. Sam Karnick would not be very happy with me. Thankfully, I know my odd little decision is unlikely to influence anyone, so I can rest assured that the lively exchanges on this site will proceed as scheduled.
I will also admit I am being a bit misleading when I say I’m giving up “the Internet.” I work for a software and IT company and am online for most of the workday. I also co-administer the company’s Facebook page. What I’m really talking about is giving up personal Internet use: email, web surfing, social networking (aside from any that pertains to my company), and instead using all that extra time to focus on my family, my spirituality, and my self. As a writer it also affords me the chance to devote my energies to my craft rather than to the perpetual online hustle of selling the work.
While libertarians and “conservatives” have generally embraced the Internet since its inception, traditionalists (a group for whom I feel a certain degree of sympathy, if not kinship) have historically had a more complicated relationship with the online world. In the mid-1990s a group of writers and thinkers, loosely dubbed the “neo-Luddites,” staged an open revolt against the encroaching ubiquity of the virtual realm. A former librarian named Scott Savage, who had been tasked with moving his library’s collection index from the traditional card catalog system to an online database, had a visceral reaction to the whole experience and moved his family to a traditional Quaker community. For many years he published a handmade magazine called Plain–a sort of Harper’s for the unplugged set–that counted at one point over 5000 subscribers. Kirkpatrick Sale, a historian and something of an academic renegade, wrote a book called Rebels Against The Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution – Lessons for the Computer Age, and author Nicols Fox followed with Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives.
I learned about the movement, and the books, online.
And that, of course, is the conundrum: for all the soul-sucking qualities of the plugged-in experience (you can probably guess where I stand on the whole e-book thing), the Internet has done wonders for connecting kindred spirits who might otherwise languish in isolation and despair. Take The American Culture, for instance: what a joy it was to find this community of independent-minded writers sharing their unique views on film, literature, and other aspects of culture. My intellectual life would be less rich without it. Even Kirkpatrick Sale now has an online presence via the Middlebury Institute (they seem to be agitating for secession–not of the Old Confederacy but of Vermont. It’s a long story). Plain Magazine folded many years ago. And, despite my own love/hate relationship with technology, I have sold an awful lot of books on Amazon.com. Plus, there’s the small matter of that biweekly paycheck from my tech-based day job that pays my mortgage. I have no wish to bite the hand that feeds, only to question it, assess it, and withdraw from it, from time to time.
The neo-Luddites have gone the way of the original Luddites, probably because, in the end, the benefits of the Internet outweigh the costs. But those costs are there, and very real. So while I don’t encourage anyone else to go offline for Lent (or any other religious event mandating self-sacrifice), I do recommend mindfulness. That is to say, if you find yourself aimlessly browsing YouTube instead of spending time with your family, use the opportunity to make a slight course-correction.
Oh, this year I’m also giving up fried food.
Robert Dean Lurie is the author of No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church