How to Live With No Computers

As you read these words, I have been nine hours without a computer. For the first time in my life-long dependency on computers, I am going cold turkey. I’m not going to use the old bastard for the whole of the rest of this week.

Thank god.

I know this might sound like a ridiculous rich-world conceit, but I am way too reliant on my computer. It sucks into every pore of my life. I wake up with my computer, I work with my computer, I get headaches with my computer. My computer informs me, my computer entertains me, my computer frustrates me.

Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in – check email – breathe out.

And, to be honest, it’s rubbish. We need a break.

Why No Computers?

One of my ambitions in life is to be as self-sustainable as possible. For me, this means reducing my reliance on things that are not me. Relying heavily on external matter will only cause pain when they are taken away – as all things are one day.

I’m not saying that it’s not desirable to have these things – I rely on a lot of external things for my life and I am grateful for them. But, so far as I can, I want to know what it is like to not have. I might learn something useful through privation. What will I find to do without my time-sucking computer?

I have become so habituated to computers, that they no longer demand my imagination. They no longer get me excited. They are a default. I turn to my computer when I’m bored. I surf the net. I write an email. I surf the net again. When the internet isn’t working I might actually write something. Or play Hearts.

Without my computer to entertain me, I’ll have to think. I won’t have my default available any more. Maybe I’ll find something more interesting, maybe I’ll find something more useful, maybe I’ll find something more human to do.

So for the next week I’m not going to use my computer. It’s not a long time, but it should be enough to knock me out of my mindless reliance on the computer, stop me from taking the privilege of a computer for granted and teach me about what is really important, what is really necessary for my life.

What does No Computers mean?

  • It doesn’t mean I can’t type. I have a rather nifty little typewriter that I intend to do my writing on.
  • It doesn’t mean I can’t use other electronic equipment. I can still use my phone and camera, for example. It’s not a smartphone though, so no sneaky computer use there.
  • I’m not going to be an idiot about it. If someone else is using a computer and wants me to look, I’m not going to throw my hands over my eyes and run screaming. I’m just not going to use it myself. 
  • However, it does mean that I won’t be able to post on this blog any more this week. Not until Sunday night, anyway.

A slightly more extreme opinion on what I am doing comes from a 1987 essay by writer and farmer Wendell Berry:

“I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape? For the same reason, it matters to me that my writing is done in the daytime, without electric light.”

Extreme, but I sympathise with his argument and admire the stand he is making. Even though I’m not at total accord with his dismissal of the power of computers to spread knowledge (you can’t blame him for not foreseeing the role telecommunications would play in the recent revolutions in the Middle East) the rest of the essay is well worth a read:

This article, written for PC World around 2002, is much closer to what I expect and why I am doing it:

A Disturbing Night

He awoke with a restless sense of unease.

What was wrong?

He felt for his hands, pushed his legs against the mattress, brushed his tongue over his teeth. All present and correct.

Something was missing.

His sheets were there, in some disarray, but there. His blanket and pillow were there. But the feeling remained.

What had gone?

He looked around the hotel room, sunlight sliding through. Maybe something had happened. Maybe his friend had gone. He looked over – but there she was, sleeping in the other bed, the sheets rising and falling, slow and steady.

Then it struck him: his boxer shorts.

He felt for them under the bedsheets. Gone. He bent to look around on the floor, keeping the sheets tight around his body – but they had disappeared.

How can a pair of boxer shorts simply disappear?

He had worn them to bed, he was sure. He knew he had worn them to bed last night. His friend would have screamed if she’d seen him naked. She wasn’t that kind of friend.

So where were they now? Was this some kind of practical joke? Was he the victim of alien interference? Had he, in the Freudian depths of his unconsciousness, somehow removed them? And if he’d been able to remove them – what else had he done?

The mystery of the boxer shorts would linger through the day, teasing his mind as his friend showed him around the ruins of Ġgantija.

The Truth About the Feeding of the Five Thousand

The story of how Jesus managed to feed five thousand hungry folks back on the shores of a lake near Bethsaida in AD It-Never-Really-Happened is one of the most famous tales in the New Testament.

Everyone’s hungry after traipsing around behind Jesus all day, but there’s no food to be had. So a little boy offers up his five bread rolls and his two little fishes, Jesus does a few prayers and – ta-daa! – everyone’s satisfied.

The rather nauseating message being: with God’s love, there’s never any shortage. In fact, there were left overs – twelve baskets of them.

The Feeding of the One Billion

The situation we’re in today isn’t altogether different, it’s just on a grander scale (and with no Jesus, but that’s a good thing – trust me).

What we’ve actually got in AD2011 is, not five thousand, but one billion hungry folks working their asses off all day and still only pulling in less than the price of a Cherry Yoghurt Flapjack at Metro Central mini-market on the Kingsway (£1.10, other vendors are available).

The reason ‘no Jesus’ is a good thing is that today we don’t need a miracle to solve this conundrum. The miracle has already happened – there is already a vast surfeit of food and wealth in the world. It’s just not very evenly distributed. In fact, it’s not really distributed at all, more like hoarded, in rather miserly fashion, under the beds of the astonishingly wealthy of this world.

I’m one of the billion richest people on the planet and, combined, we have a pot of about $30 trillion to play with. And what’s needed to pull those one billion poorest out of extreme poverty? About $70 billion less than a quarter of a percent of our $30 trillion fortune.

Jesus and the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Modern Revision)

I’ll leave you to think about that and return to Jesus. This is the story of the feeding of the five thousand (“modernised” for the youth of today):

Apostles: Shit, dude – there’s loads of people following you, man. It’s getting late, you’d better send them away so’s they can get some tucker from town.
Jesus: Chill, guys. We don’t need to send them away. You feed them.
Apostles: Us? You kidding? We haven’t even got enough for ourselves, dude!
More Apostles: Yeah – how are we gonna get enough to feed, like, five thousand of the buggers? That’d be well expensive!
Jesus: Well, what have you got?
Apostles: Er…
Little Shepherd Boy: ‘Ere, guvna, I’ve got a few loaves o’bread and a coupla fishes – you can ‘ave ’em if you wants.
Apostles: Shush, shush, Little Shepherd Boy, don’t be silly. That’s not going to feed five thousand people / benefits cheats!
Little Shepherd Boy: Well, I woz just off’rin’…
Jesus: Dearest Little Shepherd Boy, me home-boy, pass me the loaves… Please O Lord, O Gracious Heavenly Father, sort me out here, will you? – TA-DAH!
Five Thousand People: Yummy! Hooray for Jesus!
Apostles: Well, blow me.

If you were faced with five thousand actual hungry people, would you be like the Apostles and be cynical about how you could help? Or like More Apostles and feel helpless, that nothing you could do would make a difference?

Course you would. Maybe. I would. I’d totally freak out.

The Ancient Parable, Interpreted for Modern Times

Unfortunately, we’re not often faced with five thousand actual hungry people on our doorstep. But this story, I read as a parable: it has a message. Jesus was trying to teach us something.

The truth is that the five loaves of bread and the two fishes represent the pitiful fraction of the rich world’s wealth that is required to bring the one billion extreme poor above the dollar-a-day mark. It represents a one-off payment of $70 from every person in the rich world.

That’s fuck all.

In fact, we all know it’s fuck all, which is why we’ve all already promised to do it. The developed nations of the world entered into a UN commitment in 1970 to provide Official Development Assistance at the level of 0.7% of their gross national income to alleviate extreme poverty.

That’s all it takes. Or all it would take, if we actually did it.

  • The Little Shepherd Boy in the parable represents the five states who’ve kept their promise: Sweden (1.12% in 2010)Norway (1.06%), Luxembourg (1.01%)Denmark (0.88%) and the Netherlands (0.82%).
  • But the big boys, the Apostles, still give fuck all. Fuck all, as in: the UK (0.52% in 2010) and the USA (0.20%*).

If all the Apostles, not just the Little Shepherd Boy, had handed over five loaves and two fishes each, then feeding five thousand people wouldn’t have looked so impossible. It wouldn’t have been a feast, but it would have been way, way better than nothing. Everyone could have had a nice salmon sandwich – without the need for silly miracles.

And that’s the point.

  1. 0.7% of GDI is not much to ask. It’s a few loaves and a couple of fishes compared to what we have.
  2. If we all do it, we can make a difference. At the moment, we’re not doing enough, waiting around for miracles that never come.
  3. This aid is not gonna make the recipients rich, but they would be out of extreme poverty and on the road to self-sustaining development.

And we would be on the path to a fairer, safer, more humane planet.

Just as Jesus would have wanted. 


* i.e. about the same as famously bankrupt Greece.

Interestingly, supporters of the US foreign development strategy might point to the alternative measure of development aid, the “Commitment to Development Index”. This brings a wide range of factors into account (not just aid, but trade and investment, for example) when judging the contribution individual states make towards development in other countries.

In this index, the US comes in a respectable (kind of) 11th place, still below bankrupt Ireland, but at least above the UK, Germany and France. Except that one of the factors taken into account is “Security”, for which the US scores an inexplicable 9.9, the highest score of anyone. Take this out of the equation and they fall back down the charts, into 18th place, back in with famously bankrupt Greece.

Death of a Snail – RIP 22nd July 2006

I went to refill the watering can. As I lifted the grille on the water butt I noticed a snail shell stuck to the top; no sign of the snail mind you, but, damn, I’d be hiding out in this heat too. As I dunked the can into the murky water of the butt, filled overnight by heavy storms, something floating on the surface caught my eye. There it was, bobbing serenely into my half-submerged watering can: one gruesomely bloated carcass of an ex-snail.

I gasped and brought the can sharply out of the water, leaving the slug behind, drunkenly pirouetting in the disturbed water. I examined the carcass more closely; the slug had swollen to gargantuan proportions. It was half a foot long and its tentacles burst from its head like an over-inflated novelty balloon.

A long hot humid spell inevitably wrought thunderstorms; the rain was straight out of The Old Testament and brought a harsh mercy to garden life, but marked one snail in particular for spectacular extinction.

This is a reconstruction of his final hours.

In the ne’er do good pre-dawn of Saturday, with his foolish progress punctuated by Frankenstein thunder and lightening, one snail attempted the daredevil crossing of the water butt. In the dark, the depths echoed danger, but the treacherous grille cover proved temptation too much.

Snails love water, but you don’t see them swimming in puddles, except face up.

This snail had not accounted for the rising water from the depths of the parched butt.

The vengeful rains brought down inches in moments and it was not long before our snail started to feel the waves lapping at his underbelly. Another ten minutes of deluge and the water butt starts to overflow, washing mercilessly over the body of the snail. The grille prevented the shell from slipping into the wash, but as the rains eased, the slug drowned from the bottom up.

The Mowing of the Lawns: A Study in Green, Gordon Square

The mowing dance plays with a steady whorr, with punctuating snap and crack of sticky twig or cruk of stone. Once around the round herbaceous border, once again, concentric circles of sliced and diced lawn rippling out in tidy daisy death.

This is municipal gardening, large scale, industrial mowing, without distinction. One lawn cuts the same way as the next. Sunbathers roll out of the way of the slicing machine trundling their way, sneezers get a lungful of grassy effluent and a guitar man is swamped in steady whorr.

Uniformly green shirt, blue trouser, red glove, three municipal gardeners assault the expanse of lawn, the side borders, trimming edges with mask for strimming protection.

His hair has had the same treatment by a municipal dresser, course grey lines, the borders neatly trimmed, stark against bare skin, skirting round ear curlicue, sweeping down the nape of the neck, defined: hair / not hair.