Earlier this year, tediously, Virgin Mobile transferred all their customers (hi) from the EE network to Vodafone.
(Did you know that there are only four actual mobile phone networks in the UK? All the other providers are just piggybacking.)
For 99.99 percent of Virgin customers, this move made absolutely no difference. For me, however, the switch was terminal, as I happen to live in a Vodafone dead zone.
It’s a strange story because outside on the streets, on the beach or even in my garden, I have full bars and leopard leaping 30mbps 4G coverage. Inside the flat, however, that drops to a caterpillar crawling 2mbps on the dreaded H+.
Why? How? Why?!
The Vodafone antenna is on our roof. Glorious reception in all directions but down.
Unfortunately, unless the wind is blowing just right, this stuttering connection is nowhere near good enough for me to work from home.
So earlier this week, I changed network providers. All well and good, until they tried to port my old phone number to the new SIM card.
Then something broke.
Now my phone can’t connect to any network. I can’t make calls and I can’t connect to the internet.
In fact, because I don’t have wifi installed in the flat, I haven’t been connected to the internet while at home for all of 48 hours.
This is probably the longest I’ve been without internet in my own home since I lived on a smallholder farm in 2009 and my work consisted of digging vegetable plots, hunting for chicken eggs and throwing apples for the pigs.
Even that was only a brief hiatus in a connective link between the dial-up of 1998, via broadband ethernet, to the arrival of wifi and 3G.
Despite being a late-adopter of the smartphone, I’ve been more or less tethered to the internet at home since I was about sixteen years old and certainly for the whole of my working life.
Since I left university, to a greater or lesser extent, my work has also depended on a reliable connection to the internet.
From finding my first English students through an advert on Gumtree to writing and designing a website for people I never met in meat space, the internet has always been an essential business partner.
But even in 2022 it would be wrong to say that my work is entirely dependent on the internet.
In fact, now that I find myself without, I realise that my writing work is a long way off needing the reliable always-on connection of the sort that fills most homes – and filled mine until 13:07 on Wednesday afternoon.
Not that I’m counting the minutes or anything.
One of the stickiest ideas I’ve ever come up with is Minimum Viable Technology.
The guiding principle is that, when deciding what tool to use, start by defining the task and then choose the least complex tool that will do the job. No more, no less.
For example: I need to get some food later. The shops are 4km away, but I only have an hour to spare and I’ll have a lot to carry home. That’s the job.
The tools at my disposal are: my walking legs, my bicycle and my car. The least complex tool to solve the problem is my bicycle with a couple of pannier bags.
Choosing the bicycle, I’ll save money and petrol over the car, while keeping the head-clearing benefits of physical exercise at a speed considerably faster than walking.
But far too often we act with the principle of Minimum Viable Technology turned upside down.
Instead of first defining the task at hand, we’re dazzled by the tool and go searching for jobs it happens to be good at.
To someone with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
We have a spectacular tool at our fingertips – the internet – and so we bend almost every aspect of our entire existence into internet-shaped tasks.
In so doing, we accidentally generate a scrolling stream of work to grind through, in service of the tool.
Back in the 90s, who would have predicted that inbox overwhelm would become a daily battle for almost everyone with an internet connection, i.e. almost everyone?
In the creation of ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication, the internet has turned human interaction into a stressful game of whack-a-mole.
But was ubiquitous instant always-on asynchronous communication ever defined as the job we needed done?
The tool has made civil servants and secretaries of us all.
The problem is not that the internet can’t be our Minimum Viable Technology for some (even many) tasks.
This newsletter wouldn’t be in front of your eyeballs right now if I hadn’t decided that the internet was the right tool for the job.
The problem with the internet is that, once chosen as the right tool for some tasks, it has a nasty habit of taking over everything else as well.
I’m sure someone clever has written a long treatise on how every business is now an internet business, but I’m more interested in what this takeover means for us as humans living our puny little lives.
More specifically: what it means for me. And, for me, the always-on internet means two things: spidering and defaulting.
Sometimes when I sit down at my computer to write a newsletter, that’s exactly what happens. My fingers, my brain and the internet work in a smooth and equal partnership.
Writing this way feels like a conversation with the rest of the world: pulling the data of other people’s experience into a synthesis with my own and putting that back out onto the network.
It’s a rare sensation. More often, I catch myself spidering.
Instead of looking inwards for authentic inspiration, I venture out onto the web.
I search this thing, that thing. Read this article, that article. Follow this link, that link. Type this, type that. Nothing sticks.
Before I know it, two hours have passed and I’ve got 43 tabs open and only 12 words on the page. That’s spidering.
Defaulting is what happens in the twelve hours of the day that I’m neither properly focussed on a task nor asleep.
The internet is always on. At home, my computer is always there. Until yesterday, that combination meant that the internet is not only always on, but always there.
As a freelancer (and increasingly for y’all nine-to-fivers), that means my work is always on and always there too.
I’ll drift over to my computer, handily stationed in the dominant middle of the room, and I’ll file email, cycle on rotation through the same default websites, tidy my spreadsheet calendar, check messaging apps, try to read something, buy something I don’t really need.
This is not productive work, this is ‘can’t switch off’ work. Footling around, tweaking, checking and triple checking. Busy work.
But do you know what I really hate about defaulting? When I use it as a ‘reward’.
I’ll be in the flow of writing and suddenly realise that I’ve been working for 45 minutes straight and, as a ‘reward’, I’ll check the BBC Sport headlines.
Reward defaulting is the WORST – it’s not refreshing, it’s not rewarding, it’s just blind dopamine addiction.
Who is at fault here?
There will be readers who say that all my spidering and defaulting behaviour is simply ill-discipline. Fair enough.
But once I’ve acknowledged my ill-discipline, what then? Just try harder? Ha!
My problem is not with my internet connection as such; my problem is with my ‘always on, always there’ part. But separating the two is almost impossible.
So far as I know, I can’t buy a nine to five connection. I either have the internet or I don’t.
Yes, I know there are apps out there that will limit my internet connection. I know because I use two of them: Freedom and Unpluq.
It’s true that I haven’t used Freedom to permanently disconnect myself – but I have used it to limit my access to certain websites. And I have also discovered how easy the app is to circumvent.
The temptation to circumvent my own discipline is much too great: waiting for me behind that protective firewall is a delicious banquet, every last megabyte morsel of internet goodness.
This is the reason why the most effective positive constraints are black and white: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel. Not: I don’t use aeroplanes to travel except sometimes when I do.
So, assuming I ever get my phone to work again, how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my house?
Well, first of all, let’s see how I managed to write today’s newsletter, wifi-free.
Before today, I’d written 330 editions of this newsletter and I’d say that about 312 of them were written in the same way: with a solid internet connection running in the background.
It’s no wonder that, at first, this new way of working felt a little uncomfortable. Unstable. Untethered.
Writing a newsletter is a complex task, made up of dozens of smaller individual tasks – but I’ve realised today that only a couple of those smaller jobs are best done while tethered to an internet connection.
The rest are best done without internet – not that they can’t be done while connected, but they’re best done without.
This is where it helps to define the three major areas of newsletter writing according to Minimum Viable Technology principles.
With limited budget to spend on postage stamps, my options are pretty limited here. The internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for the job. Thank you, Substack.
The internet might be the fastest tool for grabbing a quick quote and it might even be the best tool for prospecting and sieving for content – but it is also a resource that is available to almost everyone.
If almost anyone can perform a web search, then, however tempting for the writer, that work has less value to the reader.
Do you know how many hours a day the average American spends online? Well, yes you do. As much as I do, anyway. The answer’s right there, a few taps away.
The seductive ease of the internet squeezes out slower, deeper, more valuable research that I can do from my own experience and my own library – particularly when so many of the stories I write here are inspired by the physical books (not online articles) that I read.
The Minimum Viable Technology is my own brain in the first instance – not out of arrogance, but rather trust that I already know roughly what it is that I want to say, what line of argument to take, or what emotion or reaction I’d like you to have in response.
When my brain inevitably runs dry, my home library of about 400 books is there for inspiration: a much deeper well than a surface-level web search.
You can trace the origins of this story, for example, to two books by Cal Newport: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email, both of which I’ve written about before and both of which are sitting on the desk right next to me.
As writers, we are spoiled by the wealth of knowledge found on the internet, forgetting that our personal libraries are probably better provisioned than 99 percent of libraries that ever existed in the millennia before 1960.
It’s rare that I write something so entwined with online research that I can’t put anything down on the page, but for those more research-heavy stories I can imagine a process of going back and forth to an internet connection between drafts — not during.
Missing research can be skimmed over in the draft using a marker like TK (a rare letter combination in English, standing for ‘to come’) and the gaps filled through batching when an internet connection is restored.
Stupid example: I had no idea how many mobile phone networks there were in the UK, only that there weren’t very many. I only looked up the exact number just now, before hitting send.
This morning, I went to the library to use the internet. Before going, I made a long list of things to do while I had a connection.
Besides getting in touch with my mobile phone service provider, I wanted to message a few people, send a couple of emails, check some train times and the weather forecast for a mushroom picking adventure.
It was all done quickly and easily. That’s the joy of batching tasks – like doing all the washing up in one go. And when it was done, there was nothing to keep me in the library.
If I’d been at home, those same jobs would have cropped up here and there throughout the day and either interrupted my flow or taken much longer thanks to my old friends, spidering and defaulting.
At the library, I simply got to the end of my list and felt almost disappointed: is that it? Is that all the business I have with this lofty invention to whom I dedicate so many hours at home?
Writing is a long process of drafting and redrafting and, because of twin threats of spidering and defaulting, I think almost all that work is best done without an internet connection.
One of the big advantages to writing this newsletter offline is that I couldn’t rush to print.
I spent two hours writing the first draft of this newsletter and the temptation was to hurry over to the library and get it up on Substack for editing.
But then I realised that I didn’t need to. I could do all my edits in LibreOffice at home, still with no internet connection.
This new writing process unfolded over eight stages, the first five of which were offline and occupied five of the six hours this story took to write:
- First draft in Q10, an offline text-only writer
- Second draft in LibreOffice, an offline word processing app
- Print out, read and edit with an actual pen
- Third draft edits in LibreOffice, offline
- Cycle to my friends’ house (thanks GC and BS)
- Copy over to Substack online
- TK gap-filling and typesetting online
- Publish online (yay!)
Those first two stages are the bulk of the work and took about four hours – probably about average for an epic story of this kind, but, with no distractions, I found the process more enjoyable, smoother.
Not only that, but with all the time in the world at my disposal, I could print out a copy of the text and take it to the sauna with me to do some relaxed line edits.
Why not try, just this once?
One of the things that I did in the library earlier was to download a bunch of podcasts that I could listen to offline at home.
Now I’m thinking that I shouldn’t have bothered.
There’s something wonderful in running out of things to do and getting bored. It might be making me more curious, for starters.
I’m not someone who switches on the television and I’m not so interested in radio since I adopted my current No News Is Good News media diet.
With the gravitational pull of my sweet, sweet internet connection gone, the only distractions or entertainment in the flat are reading and staring out of the window.
I can no longer ‘reward’ myself with distraction defaulting.
I live alone so no one can pull me away from what I’m doing. No one on Whatsapp, no one on Signal, no one on my emails, no one on the phone, no one.
The closest I am to this kind of distraction is at the library, a five minute walk away. That’s a long way to go for a quick dopamine ‘treat’.
Instead I reward myself with a change of music, a chilli oat biscuit with maple syrup, by staring out to sea or playing guitar.
Nothing creates the impression of limitless time as having nothing to do. Not because I’ve done nothing, but because I stopped when I’d done the important things.
The things that were not important were not done and that time regained opens up a clear horizon in the mind.
Interruptions don’t necessarily hold us back in terms of getting things done, but they do come at the cost of ‘more stress, higher frustration, time pressure and effort’.
Stress has been shown to make us feel more pressed for time (no surprises there) and feeling more pressed for time is antithetical to our wellbeing and our willingness to help others.
And here is the challenge I promised at the top: I bet you still find it IMPOSSIBLE to cut your home internet connection.
Clearly, this newsletter isn’t going analogue any time soon.
But I’ve learned that five out of six hours, 83 percent, of the work can be done offline and this slower, less distracted process has undoubtedly made for a more focussed story.
(A better story, though? You be the judge of that!)
Even if the internet is the Minimum Viable Technology for many jobs, that doesn’t mean that I need it piped into my home twenty-four hours a day.
The question returns: how the hell can I design a positive constraint that will keep the always-on, always-there internet out of my god-damned house?
Given the spidering and defaulting tendencies and temptations of the internet, I’m afraid that only a radical solution will work. Something stronger than Freedom, Unpluq or my own willpower.
Okay, so… I’m going to try leaving my phone in my car in the car park outside, eight flights of stairs away.
I’ll still be able to do all the internet things I need to do when I need to do them, but, as well as the mild discomfort, there’s no way of charging my computer down there so I’ll be limited to an hour of connected time anyway.
If I need longer: away to the library again.
All the other things that I need a phone for, like using maps or (umm) phoning people, are done (or better done) outside anyway. Let’s walk and talk.
Oh – and yes: I am aware of the crushing irony of this.
No internet in the flat was the reason that I changed mobile network provider – yet also precisely how I came to discover that what I really want is… no internet in the flat.
For now, though, even my car phone solution is a luxury. I still haven’t got signal. (Sorry friends!)
Talking of friends: I was chatting about my predicament last night and someone pointed out how annoying it is for everyone else when one of you doesn’t have a phone.
Phone connection is part of the social contract now: if you can get in touch with me anytime, then I can get in touch with you anytime. That’s the deal.
So one friend suggested I leave my smartphone in the car, but keep a dumbphone in the house for calls. I’ve enjoyed the silence of the past couple of days, but I can’t deny that this is a fair and pragmatic suggestion. Thanks GC!