Taking a holiday from the 'Net

by Mike Cassidy

San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

24 July 2008


If Lawrence Lessig can do it, so can you.

Lessig is a who in “Who’s Who,” a scholar who’s crusaded against overprotective copyrights, promoted ‘Net neutrality and agitated for good government. He’s a Stanford law professor who regularly speaks at the world’s big think-fests. He’s a rock star among the digerati, a blogger (of course) who recently decided against a run for Congress.

And despite it all, once a year he makes a deliberate decision to go off the digital grid—no blogging, limited e-mail, few phone calls—for a month.

That might be a stretch for most of us. But how about a week or two?

Summer is slipping away fast, but there’s still time to take control of your time—to think, to write, to reconnect, to read, to love, to relax, to meditate.

Leave the in-box behind. Use the slow days of summer to pay attention to what is right in front of you.

It’s not easy. As this was written, my clan was setting off for a family reunion at a wooded estate in Wisconsin. Our teenage daughter, Bailey, packed her nifty new MacBook. A good father would forbid it. (You’re going to talk to your relatives, and you’re going to like it.)

Instead, it was all I could do to not commandeer the machine to sneak a peek at e-mail or whip up a blog post.

But Lessig has shown us we can cut the cord.

For Lessig, who’s 47, it took the birth of his first son nearly five years ago.

“I saw that unless I did something like that,” Lessig says, “it was going to be very hard to focus on what was the most interesting part of my life, which was my kids.”

How busy is this guy? He blogged in early May about his plan to go off the grid. “Closed until June,” he wrote.

On June 2, I sent Lessig an e-mail asking if we might get together to talk about his digital blackout.

He wrote right back and we were to meet a week later. Then his assistant contacted me saying Lessig would be on the road that week. And the week after that he was booked. The following week? Korea.

Rather than meet, how about a phone conversation? In three weeks? At 6 a.m.?

Lessig says that’s how he lives his 11 plugged-in months. Over the six months after our appointment, he’s traveling every week but two. He’ll blog. And he’ll handle e-mail. Or e-mail will handle him.

“I obsessively try to respond to anything anyone sends,” he says, “and that’s not a good use of my time.”

But when Lessig is unplugged, he’s really unplugged. His e-mail auto-response tells correspondents that if they want him to read their e-mail they should resend it once he returns from exile. So no obligation to scroll through a bushel of e-mails when he plugs back in, which in some ways would defeat the purpose.

“We haven’t developed the norms to reintroduce life into the world of e-mail,” Lessig says. Instead, we expect each other to be always on.

Lessig thinks that will change over time. “It took a long time in the workplace for norms to develop about how people have weekends and people have vacations.”

Meantime, Lessig forces the issue for a month. This year he and his family rented a beach house in Madagascar.

“We hung out,” he says, “we went for long walks on the beach.”

Yes, the house had a computer. But it had a slow connection, Lessig says, and a baffling Malagasy keyboard, which greatly reduced the temptation to use it.

Such little hurdles to connecting can be our allies, Lessig says. Not everyone can go to the ends of the earth to flee the digital deluge, but there are little things we can do.

When Lessig needs quality time to write he sometimes unplugs his wireless router. Just the hassle of having to plug the thing in to send an e-mail is enough to make the idea unappealing.

Eventually, he says, we’ll find better ways to use our communication tools without being mindlessly tethered to them. How about software that would erect the very barrier we need to stop the e-mail response twitch?

“This would be really great software,” he jokes, “to basically block you out unless you type the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.”

Now seems like the perfect time to at least get started on it.

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