Slipping out of the net

So, last week I was knocked offline for almost a full week by a broadband outage. Did you miss me? If you say no, I warn you that I shall be terribly hurt and upset.

There’s no terribly interesting backstory to it. I woke up on the morning of Friday, April 1 to find my internet connection wasn’t working (a particularly cruel April Fools’ Day joke.) I reported it to my ISP who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen, which was disappointing – even more so because it was actually 72 hours later when they finally got back to me to tell me that they had discovered a fault on the phone line. And that meant it wasn’t their problem anyway after all, and that I now had to call BT about it. Naturally, when I did, the (very friendly and efficient) BT Care line told me it would be 48-72 hours to arrange an engineer to visit – it was liking wading through treacle.

Astonishingly I got a call just three hours later from a BT engineer standing at the door wanting to come in. Hurrah! I honestly can’t speak highly enough about BT’s service in this, much-maligned though I know they often are. They fixed the fault, only to discover that the fault that had been detected was a fault with their phone line fault detection system and nothing at all to do with my loss of DSL. They went away job done but my problems still persisting, and I had to get back to my ISP … who patiently explained that their ‘process’ required 48 hours of testing before anything can happen. Sounds familiar? ISP, I dub thee Groundhog Day. Two days later and they were back in touch to say that yes, a fault had been found – with their supplier. Specifically, at the BT exchange. So now it was back to BT, although at least this time it was for the ISP to arrange and manage. I found (by chance) that my broadband was back on Thursday evening, six hours shy of a full week’s outage.

My ISP (whom I shall not name) seemed surprised at how frustrated, irate and impatient I was during this time, as though really a week’s outage was perfectly ordinary, common and reasonable. I don’t know, maybe it is – I’ve not had any problems before with which to compare (the service from the ISP has been bullet-proof and exemplary up till now, so really I’m only grumpy about their fault handling response and support.) Over to you to decide on that one.

In truth the main reason why I was so frustrated about the outage was that it meant I couldn’t research and write various time-sensitive articles that I had agreed and been contracted to write. Not only could it lose a job, but it also meant I was letting people down – and the one thing that gets me stressed and anxious more than anything is the feeling of letting people down, of not delivering something that I’ve promised. Of course it wasn’t my fault, no one was going to blame me for such a force majeure, and I’d immediately emailed and tweeted (thanks to my iPhone’s 3G connection) when I knew I was going to be offline, but I still felt bad about causing problems for other people. In the end I was able to do damage-limitation via a very long and tiring stint on Friday after the connection was restored; it would have been far worse and in many ways irrecoverable if the outage had persisted over a second weekend, so really I should feel this was a narrow escape.

All that backstory over with, I did find the whole experience of being forced offline for a week to rather interesting from a detached, intellectual point of view.

For one thing it made me realise just how fundamentally intertwined my computer now is with the internet. That wasn’t the way as recently as 3-4 years ago (I was a late broadband adopter) when the dial-up process kept the two distinct: the always-on nature of broadband means that there is now no longer any significant boundary where my computer ends and the internet takes over. They are the same. Or at least, they are until the internet disappears and suddenly 75% of the things you take for granted at your keyboard disappear with it. Not being able to look up even the most basic information stopped me from writing because I would obsess about little factual research details and feel stymied until I was able to look them up and verify the answer. Some programs started to malfunction or perform really badly without internet connectivity (my writing program, the magnificent Scrivener, started taking five minutes to boot up because it was trying to ‘phone home’. As soon as the internet was restored, the same program and project files took 5s to launch.) It made me start to shy away from even starting up the computer, because I knew the irritation of continually starting to do something only to realise that it had an internet component to it that made it non-functioning for the time being would start to drive me mad. Best to just stay away altogether. Strangely, the sense of the computer being “cut off” extended to even features not affected by the broadband outage: since the loss of DSL cut me off from iPlayer, my subconscious wrote off watching TV on my Mac which extended to overlooking the fact that the EyeTV application relied purely on its own digital tuner and was unaffected by the broadband. It took me days to get back into using it.

I found I was continually bugged by not being able to look up something about a TV program I was watching or a radio program I was listening to. The continual exhortations on BBC programs to access that show’s web pages became actually deeply annoying and I would start to shout back at the announcer “Well, I would if I damn well could, wouldn’t I?!?!” My sensitivity to not being able to follow up anything online made me highly sensitive to just how prevalent the web is now in almost every part of the media, and finally gave me a taste of what it’s like to be “digitally excluded”. Which just makes me wonder how that group of people who say “I’m not interested in the Internet, never will, and won’t try it” manage to maintain that worldview without being browbeaten into it. (This is different from those who are excluded because of lack of availability of local broadband services, of lack of finances to fund the necessary hardware or service, or technophobia pertaining to the use of computers – all of which would genuinely stop people responding to these prompts to “see our website”.)

My humour wasn’t improved by the way my ISP’s telephone support line continually prompted me to visit their support website and manage my fault from there: that really was rubbing salt in the wound! Another factor that was causing me some anxiety was that the day the broadband went out, I had been due to report the non-delivery of two items from – and without internet connectivity there was no way of doing this. Would they use my failure to report the missing items in a timely fashion for so long as a reason to doubt my honesty in the matter? (When I did get back online and reported the items, replied within minutes, apologised for the delay and instantly ordered replacements which arrived on the Monday – flawless customer service and a lesson once again to retailers everywhere.)

Those were the undoubted downsides of the whole experience, but more surprising were the upsides and the things that I thought I would miss and yet actually became irrelevant.

For the first couple of days, I reacted to the loss of Twitter, Facebook, email and all my RSS feeds like any other addict cut off from his pusher – and was climbing the walls. But I missed Twitter and Facebook far less than I thought I would, and even my RSS news feeds slipped away from my mind after a while. It became rather peaceful and relaxing to have the information stream turned off and not to have to worry about keeping it up. There is great tranquillity in not knowing anything – “you don’t miss what you don’t have”, in other words, so the fact that I was missing out on things didn’t matter as long as I didn’t know about them in the first place. However, reality did start to seep back in toward the end when I heard some startling news about COI that I could only follow up properly to find out the details once I was back online (Mark Lund leaving abruptly last week and the not entirely unrelated news that the Public Expenditure Committee has called for more work on the Tees report on Government communications before it will accept the recommendations to replace COI with a Government Communications Centre).

It was nice to be occasionally “missed” on the social networks, and I was able to keep track of any direct mentions and respond to them on my overtaxed iPhone, just as I was able to monitor my email inbox for anything critical and to use it to let people know why I was offline. But otherwise, if I’m honest, I didn’t miss the social media nearly as much as I thought I would – it was a nice break. That said, it’s also nice to have it back!

One thing that the offline hiatus did prove to me, however, was just how “attention deficit” I’ve become over the last couple of years. Increasingly I find that I only half-watch any TV programme at best, and that quite often I’ll wonder off during an ad break to do something online – to check my email, for example, or to look up where I’ve seen a particular actor before – only to then get caught up doing something else and fail to reconnect with the TV programme when it returns. I’ve seen more “half programmes” in the last year than ever before in my life, since I’m usually quite a nerd when it comes to paying attention to a show. You could argue that the fault lies equally with the TV shows which these days appear to be universally made for audiences with the attention span of a gnat, but what the outage proved to me was that, absent the lure of “just going online for a second” on my Mac or iPad, I quickly reverted back to my old habit of watching a programme properly, without distractions, to the end.

Depressingly this return to better viewing hygiene proved entirely temporary and the very first evening my broadband was back I managed to spectacularly fail to watch most of the TV I would otherwise have concentrated on. At best, I half-listened while at the keyboard. (In my defence, this was when I was having to get quickly back up to speed with my backlog of commitments and do my damage-limitation 24 hours of catch-up, so it was rather forced on me.) Still, it’s a lesson – and I’m now actively trying to limit my use of online material during the evening if I’m supposed to be doing anything else. It’s just too easy to get distracted with the net.

As a by-product of that last observation, I think I’ve realised why the recent BBC4 Danish crime thriller The Killing (or Forbrydelsen we true fans like to smugly refer to it) had such an impact on me. As 20 hours of densely-written subtitled drama, it’s not the kind of thing you can kid yourself into thinking “I’ll just check my email but I’ll keep listening” – because the minute you move away and stop reading the subtitles, you’re completely screwed and lose the plot in seconds. Even with French or German productions I can just about busk it for a minute or two without subtitles, but Danish? Or Swedish? Not a chance. With the extra bonus of it not having any commercial breaks, The Killing was consequently watched with a laser-like intensity virtually unique in recent years of TV viewing, and I think it made for a richer, deeper, more immersive experience that made it so much more special as a result. Not that I’d recommend the BBC to switch to all-subtitled programmes from here on – I have my limits when it comes to ‘reading” television shows.

All in all, when I’ve been able to step away from the frustration and sense of missing personal deadlines, it proved to be an interesting week of observations about the place of the internet in my life at the moment – for good and for ill. Naturally I’m happy to be back online and able to access all the research information I need for what I jokingly refer to as my “day job” – it did get deeply frustrating not being able to get on on so many fronts last week, which was like being in suspended animation at times – but I also think that a few offline breaks and some paring back on online usage would be no bad thing, either.

Of course, ask me in a month and I’ll doubtless be so hyperactive online again that unplugging will once more be viewed as next to death!


  1. John Hood

    I have to agree with your observations!

    My recent dental trammels (of which you are aware) have lead to several instances of self-imposed ‘going off the grid’ or downtime: the combination of prescribed antibiotics and painkillers is not conducive to cogent thinking per se when faced with a maelstrom of social media updates!

    Indirectly, it’s been an interesting social experiment in so much as it revealed something that I was conscious of: Twitter followers (even longterm) will start to unfollow in the wake of an extended absence*!

    Going forward, I’ll be implementing further off the grid periods. Sometimes it’s good to shutdown the iMac and assorted Apple mobile devices.

    *From a few hours to weeks.

  2. andrewlewin

    Worryingly, I think I actually picked up Twitter followers while I was on enforced hiatus. Probably says a lot about the quality of signal when I’m around that puts them off 😉

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