Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

A Life Offline

I have literally had a computer since birth; the Internet came not long after that: I still remember email addresses supplemented by UUCP bang-paths. Hardly a day has gone by in which I haven’t checked my email for what must be a decade.

The Internet has kept me connected to people—as a child, all my best friends were online; as an adult, all my coworkers are. My jobs do not take place in an office; they take place over email, where time and place do not matter. The upside, is that I can go anywhere and still do them. The downside, is I cannot get away from them.

I need to take a break. My life has become entangled with technology and pressure that I hardly know any other way of life. So I’m planning to spend the month of June (June 6 to July 4, to be exact) offline. I’m packing up the laptop and the cable modem and sending them someplace far away. I’m going back to the world of paper and books.

Of course, my phone is now a computer too, so that will also have to go. I don’t have a landline, so if folks want to talk to me they’ll have to write letters (here’s my address). I (amazingly) don’t have any clocks or calendars, so I won’t even know what time it is. All of which means no more meetings or coordinating to hang out with people. I suppose people could call on me, but honestly, I wish they wouldn’t — at least at first.

I don’t feel like the kind of person who could survive on Walden Pond — I’m a finicky eater and not a huge fan of animals in any capacity. So locking myself in my apartment seems about as close as I can get. There will of course be the clerks at stores and people on the street, but for the most part I’ll be alone.

I’ve experimented with it a little — both my phone and my laptop have died recently — and it’s liberating. Walking down the street or waiting in lines, I find myself checking my phone compulsively, using it to send my mind to some other world of email or news. Without it, I feel grounded. And my laptop is even worse — a beckoning world of IMs to friends, brain-gelatinizing television shows, and an endless pile of emails to answer. It’s like a constant stream of depression. A day without it made me feel like I was human again.

I want to be human again. Even if that means isolating myself from the rest of you humans.

What if there’s an emergency? Has there ever been an emergency? The biggest urgent things seem to be that my servers go down. Which sucks, but I need to be able to walk away from that. If you have things hosted on one of my machines, contact me now and I’ll try to get you enough privileges that you can fix things if they break. If something’s really an emergency, I’m sure you’ll find me.

Have a nice June.

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 18, 2009


Technology is not so much the problem as the loss of focus from an interrupt-driven culture. You might consider meditation or other techniques to regain focus, and eventually allow you to master technology on your own terms.

posted by Fazal Majid on May 18, 2009 #

Go for it. I think shutting everything off every once in awhile does help. You should go somewhere though, not stay in your apartment. Last time I shut everything off, I went to Alaska camping with strangers because it was the last thing I would ever do. It was great.

posted by Jim Gilliam on May 18, 2009 #

“I want to be human again. Even if that means isolating myself from the rest of you humans.”

Yeah, good luck with that.

Dude, people worked out ways to connect with each other before we had microprocessors. You might start by buying a nice, paper datebook.

posted by misuba on May 18, 2009 #

You should definitely travel instead of staying in your apartment.

Get a good bike or good shoes and just start going. Bring a credit card, and you should be fine.

Using http://aribnb.com you should be able to find a place to sleep each night. Just kidding!

Just ask people when you have meals where you should go next. Ohh, and bring a friend.

posted by Ivan Kirigin on May 18, 2009 #

A technology fast sounds like it is in order but shouldn’t you use the opportunity to connect with people one-on-one instead of shutting them out? If you don’t you won’t have a “A Life Offline” - you’ll have no life.

posted by Doug Martin on May 18, 2009 #

You’ve read enough Weber to know that this is ultra-conspicuous consumption, yeah? You could wear a diamond coat on your holiday too, I guess…

posted by Carl on May 18, 2009 #

I might be misinterpreting but I think “back to the world of humans and talking” might serve you better than “back to the world of paper and books.” I mean no offense but if you’re really looking for a life offline I think changing your method of information consumption is irrelevant. If it was me, I would see much more of a change if I swapped info-consumption for personal interaction than I would if I simply changed my info-consumption media format.

Besides, you’ll get over wanting to be alone pretty fast, unless you have severe psychological problems. True isolation brings on neurosis in exceptionally healthy people and psychosis in everyone else. But hey, good luck and stuff.

posted by Giles Bowkett on May 18, 2009 #

well, I bid you good luck.

But even if you have no clock, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to get a cheap watch ?

posted by Darkoneko on May 18, 2009 #

As a resident of Concord, I can say that Thoreau wasn’t exactly roughing it at Walden - it’s a 10 minute walk from the center of town, a journey he made pretty frequently. I think his purpose was more to find himself and connect with nature than to “rough it”. Still, your idea is interesting, best of luck.

posted by WJ on May 18, 2009 #

This is the most interesting and unexpected post I’ve read on your blog. It seems you are planning the technology retreat as a means to get away from certain types of interactions with other people, but also because of dissatisfaction with compulsive use of technology as a distraction. You speak of feeling grounded and human when you aren’t so distracted. But you’ve left us imagining you’re going to hole up with a big pile of books. Big piles of books are what we brainiacs use for distraction instead of (or in addition to) mind-gelatinizing TV—distraction from our own free-running thoughts and feelings.

I would recommend a very small pile of books—about meditation, mindfulness, and basic buddhist teachings. You will benefit more from your one-month retreat than Thoreau did from his two years.

posted by Paul on May 18, 2009 #

But… you’ll miss the new iPhone launch.

posted by CW on May 18, 2009 #

I had a similar breakdown recently, and similarly wasn’t ready to go back to nature. Instead go back urban - head to NYC, London, Paris, Berlin, you get the idea, and just roam around checking out art, restaurants and bars, listen to people’s stories and reconnect with old friends.

One small thing about going old school: Keep a cellphone on you, just disable e-mail and the ringer. This is because socializing is now truly impossible without a cellphone and features like internet and maps really are clutch whether you like it or not (A-Z is RETARDED in 2009, and imagine buying movie or concert tickets without a cellphone or internet device).

Have fun - it really is refreshing to reset.

posted by Aditya Advani on May 18, 2009 #

I enjoyed reading your post. I agree with the other commenters: take the opportunity to connect with people offline, because that’s part of being human.

posted by Tim on May 19, 2009 #

best of luck. will wait for your review - life without tech

posted by Nilesh Babu on May 19, 2009 #

You sir, are an idoit. If you eliminate tech from your life, that’s cool. But withdrawing from society is totally the wrong thing to do. Why don’t you play soccer or something? It’s not like all of your interactions with other people have to be mediated by IM, SMS or the cash register at your 7-11, is it?

posted by Growly Curmudgeon on May 19, 2009 #

That’s a great move, Aaron. Not too long ago, on one of my trekking trips, I managed to forget my phone (and internet) home. This was only for a week, but it was truly refreshing.

posted by Tommi on May 19, 2009 #

It’s going to be tough to both remain social and stay true to your offline commitment. The yogic mind in me says you definitely need a period of meditative isolation when you begin this quest… that is, a period of a few days to really “break” with the old. Then you should feel comfortable venturing out into the world… I wouldn’t recommend actively avoiding networked interactions (looking over someone’s shoulder at something they’ve asked you to look at), but merely notice them and notice when you’re at the brink of getting sucked in… then walk away.

posted by joe on May 19, 2009 #

I resisted posting this at first because I don’t know exactly what kind of experiment you’ll be doing. Maybe you have too many social connections and obligations, and you need to withdraw from them. But if the problem really is the technology end of things, you’ll still need social connections if you give up technology.

After a few days or weeks of isolation, you might feel the need to get out. But this can be lonely if you’re always surrounded by strangers. It’s natural to share information and ideas with others, talk about problems, help out (very rewarding), eat together, etc. One of the easiest ways to get a community around you is to hang out often with a group like Green Drinks, Habitat for Humanity, Critical Mass, a hiking or walking or exercise group, a book club, a community garden, etc. etc. depending on your interests and passions in meatspace. (Belonging to a church fulfills all sorts of human needs like this, but for those like me who aren’t comfortable with the worshipping God part, finding a community is harder.) The idea is to mix with the same people over and over until you have some natural chemistry with them.

You can find these groups through Meetup, or Google, but it might be more rewarding to do your Google searches by asking random strangers if they know somebody who knows somebody who can answer your question…

From a sociological perspective, I’m sure you know all about the basic need of humans to be part of a community, and you’re already plugged into plenty of virtual communities, so maybe your experiment is more about having time alone with yourself than simply unplugging.

posted by Scott Teresi on May 19, 2009 #

I applaud your idea, such experiments (if thought through and done in good faith) are regular sources of, at the very least, numerous small truths. I would, however, recommend you complement your experiment (it’s the perfect time to try) with some simple vipassana meditation. Take half an hour daily, sit still and mind your breathing. Focus on each breath as it enters and leaves your body. Don’t be frustrated if your mind wonders, be joyful that you’ve caught the fact. That’s it, and that’s enough. God speed.

posted by Gronk on May 21, 2009 #

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