Photo: Modern Family

LIFE HONESTLY

What happens when a digitally devoted family goes offline?

Twelve days, two children, one election – and zero internet. Sali Hughes' diary of a digital detox

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By Sali Hughes on

For 12 days and until about an hour ago, I had no internet. No Sky, Netflix, iPlayer, wireless printer, Sonos music system, even digital radio – all, for boring admin reasons, gone for the first time in what must be 20 years.

In this narrow window of off-grid unfamiliarity, and out of necessity, boredom and the lack of means to procrastinate (look! A panda on a slide!), I resolved to write down the non-events as they unfolded. Let them be a lesson to you in considering whether upgrading to fibre really is all that necessary.

DAY -1

We have 24 hours of internet left. This feels much like when my mother would do the big food shop and we’d go full Mr Creosote on massive blocks of cheddar, then eat handfuls of dry cornflakes for the next month until she bothered going again. Now, my family positively gorges on digital content, binge-watching The Keepers on Netflix, answering emails we’d normally ignore, reading all news, checking over every new garment on ASOS. At one point, I see my boyfriend frantically putting on the third machine-wash of the day and have to remind him we’ll still get electricity and are not actually living through the Blitz. We’re by turns panicky about what we’re going to miss, and excited by the promise of a cleansing, enriching experience.

DAY 1

It’ll all be fine. We’ll just go out more. We’ll play parlour games, take up découpage. This will bring us closer together as a family and we’ll enjoy blessed relief from the general election build-up. With the threat of imminent disconnection hanging over us, we decide to sneak in the season-two finale of Love first, as closure, then scream as we are switched off remotely during the last, stressful five minutes. Downstairs, the picture (of Kevin Bacon – no idea) is frozen on the telly from when the Sky box died. Children’s thumbs are stilled on Xbox controllers. Our home has become a digital Pompeii. We resort to playing “Would you rather?” and all conclude it would be better to go without eggs than cheese, and to have pies for hands than to smell permanently of rubbish.

DAYS 2-4

OK. We’re not actually without internet, of course. This is 2017 – we can connect our devices to our mobile-phone hotspot. But this in itself changes our perspective. Our limited internet-data allowance becomes precious. Sensing the megabytes tick away as I watch Sean Spicer burble through another calamitous press conference makes me realise how superfluous most web surfing is. Rather than keep the metaphorical tap of content at full blast, allowing all news, current affairs, opinion, commerce, tweets and ads to wash over us, now we must curate what we consume. It’s time to bin the filler. When you have only limited time and money, what do you spend it on? For news, we stay strictly BBC, on the basis we can trust them.

I have a sensible, good spirited conversation with a Tory voter, and realise I’ve barely had an opinion shouted at me in almost a week

DAY 5

I wander into the living room to find my children drawing for the first time in weeks. It makes my heart sing. Later, they realise they can still play console games offline and rediscover Minecraft, which they had assured me they’d outgrown. They spend four hours painstakingly recreating our house, then call us in for a virtual tour. They are beaming with pride and accomplishment. I buy a real newspaper and sit down with a cuppa, getting my fingers pleasantly inky.

DAY 6

I have a sensible, good spirited conversation with a Tory voter, and realise I’ve barely had an opinion shouted at me in almost a week. Any exchanges I’ve had with others, any differences of opinion, have been nuanced, non-judgmental, changeable. I’m reminded again of how binary everything becomes in digital, how partisan the internet’s population is, how, ironically, the smaller world feels like much more of a mixed bag. I feel better, less anxious, than usual.

DAY 7

Our internet restrictions, I realise, have given valuable structure and time to my self-employed, freelance life. Instead of sitting around in my pyjamas, ostensibly “researching” my work, I am dressed and made up early doors, and ready to hit the coffee shop before the best seats go. Knowing I need to be out and offline by school pick-up, I get an astonishing amount done in a short space of time. I spend zero evenings working, when I’d normally be tapping away at my laptop. Instead, we huddle around a radio I’ve brought down from the bathroom, as though waiting for a declaration of war.

DAY 8-9

After voting in a pleasingly unchanging and resolutely analogue ceremony, we go to the local quiz night. Exhortation not to use mobile phones is doubly cruel when that’s half the reason we’ve come to the pub. Still, it’s a celebration of old-school information-gathering/retention, and we all agree we should make time to do it more often.

On the way home, the breaking news of exit-poll results flashes up on my phone. Data conservation, be damned – we buy a large bolt-on and spunk it all on, streaming the results into the early hours, watching the real-time expressions of May, Nuttall et al and trying to get a handle on WTF is going on. The one welcome element of living offline was the certainty of missing what would surely be a Tory landslide. Inevitably, it turns out to be the most exciting election since 1997 and we’re clucking for connection.

DAY 10

My boyfriend is gardening; I am batch-cooking. Children are reading books with pages and binding. We convene in the evening and put on an actual physical DVD, like in Victorian times. We have very few discs not archived in the loft, so I make everyone watch Unzipped, a favourite fashion documentary which, with myriad channels, iTunes and Netflix to choose from, they’d never normally consent to. They love it. I wonder how many other brilliant films my family misses out on because the Netflix blurb doesn’t immediately seduce them. Later, I realise this is my fifth early night this week, when normally we’re still watching telly gone midnight (we’ve now taken to playing a few rounds of Heads Up then crashing out). I look and feel better for it.

The last 12 days, interminable as they’ve sometimes felt, have reminded me of the value of these quiet, analogue hours

DAY 11

The Sky engineer arrives, like lifeboat to desert island, then announces he can’t do the job because he has no ladders. The family offers to make human pyramid so he can get on the roof. He puts down a full mug of tea and leaves as fast as his van can carry him.

DAY 12

Our wi-fi is restored remotely, without engineer, unveiling of plaque or street party. We’re like seagulls on chip paper, gorging on information and distraction. Full TV won’t be back until our chap sources a ladder, but streaming and catch-up services are back and plugging the gap.

I’ve always insisted on ring-fenced spells of device-free time for the children. The last 12 days, interminable as they’ve sometimes felt, have reminded me of the value of these quiet, analogue hours. And not, I must thumb-twitchingly concede, just for the kids. I’m determined to spend more time away from the pointless digital update loop. But first – those last few minutes of Love aren’t going to watch themselves

@salihughes

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Photo: Modern Family
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