Disconnect: How Logging Off Helps Us Write On

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You hop on your computer to write. Three hours later, you've written a whole lot—in Facebook posts, Twitter updates, forum posts, instant messages, and emails—but your story has moved along like a legless turtle. Sound familiar?

We could just disconnect from the web, but somehow having an active connection feels like a requirement for doing anything on a computer. Why do we rely on the internet so fully? How has this led us to “digital dependency”? And how can we get ourselves to log off so we can more effectively write on?

My name's Rob, and I'm a digital dependent.

I've become acutely aware of my internet addiction in recent weeks. Maybe I'm thinking about it in the terms of “addiction” because I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 right now. Maybe I'm just re-thinking things because the week I spent at a cabin in Idaho, far away from internet access or a cell phone signal, was one of the most productive and enjoyable weeks of writing I've had. Ever.

But I don't mean addiction as in, "When the internet isn't around I miss it." I mean that I feel paralyzed when I try to accomplish something on a computer but don't have the internet available. This applies even when I'm doing a computer-based task that has no web-centric component. It almost feels like the ethernet cable connects me to my own brain—which, as it turns out, isn't that far off.

What is technology doing to my brain?

The modern era has fundamentally rewired the way we approach information.

In 2008, the magazine article "Is Google Making Us Stupid" opened the floodgates for criticism of the internet as an amorphous super-villain that makes everyone more dumberer. While the article was speculative and anecdotal, it prompted widespread discussion, more concrete studies, and improved organization of existing information. You can check out a summary of some of the studies done on the internet's influence on our brains here.

Here's what we've figured out: We no longer remember things in the same way. This doesn't mean Google is sabotaging our memory, but it does mean that the modern era has fundamentally rewired the way we approach information. Rather than remembering the information itself, we remember how to get to the information. We're actually getting smarter in some ways (we're improving in "transactive memory"), but it makes traditional memory (pure “information recall”) less important. As a result, we remember information less and remember processes more.

The logic is obvious enough. Is it easier to remember the capitals of all 50 states or to remember you can do a search for “state capitals” and hop over to the Wikipedia article that provides them all for you? The more omnipresent information resources become in our lives, the less we need to remember the information itself. We can always whip out our smartphone or hop on our laptop to find the information—in great detail, with images, and with helpful links.

The internet isn't making us dumber or smarter, but it is changing the way our brains are wired. What's happening today is surprisingly similar to what happened when we started writing information down rather than relying on our oral tradition. Socrates is known to have thrown a tissy fit because writing the information down made it less efficient to memorize large texts. He feared written text would prevent us from remembering things, and he was right: How many people do you know who have The Odyssey memorized in its entirety?

Okay, so why has this made us dependent on the internet?

When we try to think of information, our brains will naturally try to get to the information in the most practiced way possible. If I ask you the 13th letter of the alphabet, I'm guessing you would answer by going through the ABCs and counting off each letter. This is your process of finding the information. If I told you that you had to tell me the 13th letter without going through the alphabet, though, you would probably have a hard time of it.

We're left trying to get from Point A to Point C with no Point B in sight.

This is the same thing happening when we lock up due to a lack of internet access. Our process of accessing information is gone and we're left trying to get from Point A to Point C with no Point B in sight. Approaching information in a non-typical way may not be impossible, but it is using a part of the brain that's out of practice. It's natural that this leads to slower information and higher anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, drops barriers or blocks in the creative process. (You can read more about this in my series on the neuroscience of writing.)

The intuitive solution is to get back to our standard method of information processing or, in this case, logging back onto the web. However, if you're doing something like writing a short story, logging on also means dropping yourself into a realm of distractions.

How can we fight digital dependency?

Breaking digital dependency is possible, but it's tricky. The first step is the most obvious: Log off. You'll be pushed into a state of anxiety, but the key is to write through it, re-establishing memory and thought processes that don't rely on having internet access. (If you have some trouble getting through the initial barrier to writing, check out my tips on overcoming writer's block.)

It's hard not to just log back in when a slight curiosity (“What does happen during cardiac arrest, anyway?”) tangents us away from our story. Pulling up your web browser is too easy. Here are a few ideas for blocking your net access in healthy ways:

  • Write on a non–internet capable computer. You can do this by breaking your own shit (glue in the ethernet port, yanking the WiFi chip from the motherboard) or simply working on older hardware (a Windows 95 system or even, God forbid, a typewriter).
  • Lock yourself out with vicious software (such as Cold Turkey, which I discusses in my 9 modern tools article).
  • Before you start writing, put your internet access out of reach. Hide your ethernet cable. Unplug the router. Find a place where you can't get WiFi.

The next barrier is when you reach a stage where you actually need to find some new information to write the story effectively. You could “temporarily” log back in (consider disabling cookies if you do; that way you'll at least have to re-login to platforms like Facebook). What I recommend, though, is learning to delay the research-centric elements of your writing. Just leave yourself a note instead.

I personally notate my text by writing two slashes //with a note like this// to flag my future self to go back and do something for me. You can use any annotation you'd like. I've a friend who uses {these brackets}, another who highlights, and my dear mother uses “xxx”—blissfully unaware of the adult connotations. Then, when you get back online, you can easily go back through your text and "batch process" your research.

In the end ...

This is just the beginning. It's too early to say if the digital era is, on the balance, “good” or “bad.” What's certain is that it's an age filled with difficult new challenges. Our resources are changing the way we think, and we must change our strategies if we want to thrive.

So what about you? Do you experience a similar lock-up of digital dependency? What techniques or tools do you use to keep yourself logged off? And how do you feel about the internet changing our wiring? Leave your thoughts in the comments, below.

Image of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Manufacturer: W. W. Norton & Company
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Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David February 8, 2013 - 4:38pm

I lost my internet at home last summer. My X-Box360 died in November.

 

Guess what?

I'm 25,000 words into a novel, and I've completed five short stories.

 

If I had the ne I'd be wasting time on Twitter, and looking at porn. Best thing to happen to me.

Marc de Faoite's picture
Marc de Faoite February 8, 2013 - 5:38pm

Always enjoy your posts Rob - thanks

I struggle with net dependency so I go sit in a cafe with wifi (it's just coincidental that they have wifi - I go there because the coffee is good and they let me linger over a cup for an hour), but only bring a notebook (dead tree version) and pens. Always more than one pen. Writing on a computer you never run out of ink, but there's nothing worse than having to break the flow of your writing because your ink has run out.

It means that I spend a lot of time transferring all that I've written onto a computer (and trying to decipher my handwriting), but I've found that a very useful part of the editing process and allow myself to look up things based on the notes in my hand written text.

Bradley Sands's picture
Bradley Sands from Boston is reading Greil Marcus's The History of Rock 'N' Roll in Ten Songs February 9, 2013 - 1:36am

Cold Turkey looks pretty great. Thanks. I tried using a Chrome extension for the same purpose, but I could disable it with a few clicks. I was always finding reasons for needing to get back on the internet. And many of them were valid, but I could have just skipped parts that needed research and pressed on. But I find it impossible to do that when the internet is available. So I'll give this program a try.

Vincent's picture
Vincent from Los Angeles is reading Underworld by Don DeLillo February 9, 2013 - 4:02pm

For exactly this reason, I tried to make a case with my girlfriend in favor of not getting internet when we moved into our new place. It didn't fly. As an information junkie, it's real easy to let hours of clicking go by. But, I don't want to blame my productivity problems on the internet alone, because there are a host of other issues.

I think that, ultimately, the net hurts me more as a reader than as a writer. Last week, my old laptop died unexpectedly. For a month prior, I had been reading Gravity's Rainbow at a snail's pace, like maybe 20-30 pages per week. Once my computer went away and I had nothing better to do, I sat down with it for hours and hours and finished it in a couple of days (of course, given the nature of that particular book, I'm not sure if I should be proud or not). Really made me think how much more of a productive reader I could be if I stopped being so hooked on the digital world. Of course, for the purpose of school, I did have to pick up a new machine...And it's so pretty and new that, well, what exactly are these "books" you speak of?

JamieH's picture
JamieH from Manitoba is reading Sapiens February 10, 2013 - 9:03am

Interesting article, hurt a little bit by the author's the link to The Shallows at the end.  

On The Shallows, the author of that book is quite intelligent, but he makes a numbe of logical leaps in coming to the conclusion that the internet is making people stupider and misrepresents the studies he relies on.  What he does do is establish that multitasking isn't great, and then uses that to say that the internet is making us stupider because people read less.  Unfortunately for his point, the opposite is true, people are reading more now.

It's funny in a way, Rob actually made a more balanced point in this article that's more consistent with the research than did the book linked at the end of the article.  

Robbie Blair's picture
Robbie Blair from lots of places is reading a whole stack of books February 12, 2013 - 10:04am

@Patrick: I absolutely agree that The Shallows is not a balanced book. The problem is that no well-researched book has yet been published that counters Carr. If you know of further reading outside the studies already linked in the article, I would love to include links to those books as well.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami April 10, 2014 - 11:56pm

This was the other thing that helped me finish up my novella. This along with something like a story by story outline. (Rather than including lots of subplots, I tend to have a short story plot per chapter.)