How Living Offline Has Turned into a Kind of Status Symbol
t was a death as intensely private as the mourning was public.David Bowie was cremated this week in New York without fuss or fanfare, following an illness he managed to conceal from the world. Not for him the gawping graveside circus, the paparazzi stalking famous mourners. He turned his back on all of that years ago, by choosing to make so little of his recent life – apart from his music – available for public consumption.
And perhaps that’s the only really radical thing left to do, in an era saturated with way too much information – to just stop talking. Run away from the attention everyone else seems to be compulsively seeking; disappear, disengage. There is no status symbol so powerful now as not having a status – or not, at least, in the “look at me” Facebook sense – at all.
Over Christmas in the Peak District, with no phone signal and only unreliable Wi-Fi, I finally got around to finishing some of the half-read or postponed books that had been cluttering my bedside table all year. The first happened to be Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, whose heroine is raised “off grid” in a cabin in the redwood mountains by a hippyish mother apparently seeking a cleaner, simpler existence.
It turns out to be anything but clean and simple, of course, since almost everyone in the novel is trying to keep some catastrophic secret. But although the book has been out for a few months now, its themes felt oddly prescient.
Without giving anything away, it’s perhaps no accident that Franzen places their cabin near San Francisco, one of the most connected and technologically advanced places on the planet – but one that isn’t immune to the occasional yearning for a simpler, purer life. Steve Hilton, the former Downing Street staffer turned tech guru, explained in the Guardian this week why he hasn’t carried a mobile phone for three years, despite running a Silicon Valley startup and being married to an Uber executive, and why he never wants to go back to something he associates with “stress and tension and anxiety”.
In his book, More Human, Hilton also admits to not letting his children have phones or tablets – they use computers only at school – and proposes a ban on internet-enabled movie devices for under-16s, mainly to shield them from porn.
The Oscar-nominated actor Eddie Redmayne has also admitted that for much of last year he resorted to an old school “dumbphone” that does nothing but make and receive calls or texts, to wean himself off obsessive email checking.
After decluttering, dry January and the dreaded clean eating, the next big fashionable purging movement looks set to be the Wi-Fi detox; a bit like colonic irrigation for the mind, flushing out all the unnecessary gunge. Which may be why carrying something with all the functionality of a 90s housebrick has started to become positively hip in some circles. What better proof that you’re just too cool and creative to be “on” all the time; that you need to be free to think great thoughts?
For just as dieting suggests you were eating too much to start with, and decluttering is only for those who have acquired far too much pointless stuff, going cold turkey on connectivity is only really for those privileged and popular enough to have binged on it in the first place. (Not to mention, perhaps, being rather easier for anyone with PAs and flunkies willing to handle all those pesky toxic emails on your behalf. Like the Queen refusing to carry cash, unplugging can in certain circles be a sign that, frankly, you’ve got people to deal with all that.)
Going off grid is all about suggesting you’re so hotly in demand that you need to stand back from the craziness – but also crucially that you can afford to do so. That even if you decide to play hard to get, people will still come running. Had Redmayne still been an unknown out-of-work actor desperate for any sniff of a casting call and not an Oscar nominee, he’d doubtless have spent last year frantically refreshing his inbox like the rest.
Why can’t most mere mortals switch off? Of course it’s partly addictive behaviour, all about craving company and alleviating boredom. But millions compulsively check their emails mainly because it might be work, and that’s what work expects now.
It’s no longer just jumpy freelancers and the self-employed who worry that if they ever dare take a holiday or miss a call then the work will go to someone else; checking messages and fielding calls out of hours is now a routine part of many office lives. Two-thirds of people surveyed recently by the Future Work Centremaintained “push” notifications on their phones – which tell you when you’ve got messages – around the clock. And yes, of course an electronic curfew would be healthier for all our sakes. But increasingly it’s only the reckless or the supremely confident who feel able to switch off.
Not being contactable is, after all, often very closely related to not being biddable. At the dizzy height of Westminster’s on-message years, when MPs of all parties wore their pagers (ah, remember pagers?) proudly on their belts, Ken Clarke was the only prominent politician I knew who consistently refused to use a mobile. His reasoning seemed to be that if he did, some bugger would only ring him; he’d rather watch the news and decide for himself when he had something to say, thanks. Similarly, Kate Moss realised early on in her modelling career the power of never giving interviews. Silence was classier.
But power isn’t the only necessary prerequisite for switching off, shutting up, and moving towards a cleaner and simpler existence. The other, I think, is happiness – or at least being comfortable enough in your own skin not to need constant validation from other people. How creatively fulfilled, how personally content, would you have to be to slip out of sight as quietly as Bowie did, denying himself the last thunderous curtain call of telling the world he was dying?
Unplugging is strictly for the brave, not for the needy or the insecure or anyone whose life might look worryingly empty once stripped to the bare essentials. And that’s why most of us find a technological crash diet dismayingly hard to stick to; why a simpler life remains just a fantasy. Hiding away from the world is so much more satisfying when you know it’s going to come looking.