The Internet will soon get faster. HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol, is the formatting and transmission system to call up sites on our browsers. It was created in 1991 and last upgraded in 1999, back when the web was transporting more text and fewer graphics. In a couple of weeks, HTTP/2 will be published, speeding the process "by using new ways of transporting data between the browser and server across the Internet."
I'm neither a technophile nor a technophobe, but as a Lenten practice this year, I decided to restrict my Internet access. My husband changed our home WiFi password, and I turned off the cellular data on my iPhone. Though I’d still check email and social media most mornings off-site, for 40 days, I would fast from fast.
In Christina Crook's new book, The Joy of Missing Out, she describes her experiment of Internet fasting disconnecting entirely for 31 days and chronicling the period with typewritten letters, which she mailed to a friend. "Letters to a Luddite" became The Joy of Missing Out, where Crook argues not for abandoning all things virtual, but for rethinking our digital connections and commitments.
She is a lay voice of caution, informed by academic theorists like Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, and Read Mercer Schuchardt. Schuchardt, who studied McLuhan's work under Postman at NYU, doesn't own a cell phone or a personal computer. He has warned against the perceived neutrality of technology. "That technology was a false God was Postman’s point. That there is a real God worthy of worship was McLuhan’s point."
In one chapter of her book, Crook cites various reasons for fasting from the Internet: to awaken ourselves and refuse a life of numbed distraction; to recover sacred spaces of silence and solitude; to nurture gratitude for everyday gifts. And while fasting seems to cut us off from the flow of important information, it can allow us to go deeper. As Clive Thompson describes in Smarter Than You Think, there is startling power "to our older and slower technologies, like paper and books."
For Lent, I decided to fast as remedy for distractibility. I wanted to practice real presence with God and with others, the kind that didn't suffer hurry or disinterest. If it felt urgent to recover unmediated centeredness, the truth is, when home went "dark," I panicked. All my technological tics surfaced. At stoplights, in the grocery checkout line, or halfway through a book chapter, I reached for my smartphone like an amputee trying to move a phantom limb. Without it, I suddenly discovered all the crevices in the day I filled with digital retreat. Without it, I was left to my boredom, to my self-doubt, to a thousand voices of inner restlessness.
This was good.
But as Lent lumbered on, I began resenting this chosen inconvenience, especially because I served as the central switchboard operator for our family of seven. I couldn't email my husband a Costco list. I couldn't coordinate my daughter's group project. I couldn't reserve books at the library or Google directions. Did I boil the dumplings my son made in his Mandarin class? Was Indianapolis on Eastern or Central time? Without the Internet at the tips of my fingers, nothing was immediate or dependably easy. This made me inwardly furious.
Was anything wrong with the myriad efficiencies by which I managed life?
Was anything wrong with fast?
A fast from fast has illuminated two things: first, little in life of considerable value is done fast; second, in our modern culture, we make an idol of the economized minute.
Though there's an important argument to be made for the benefits of mechanization and automation (read Alan Jacobs's review of The Glass Cage), we can also admit there's so much good we cannot hurry. Despite the intensity of our efforts, most of us agree that our spiritual formation seems to advance at a perceptible crawl. Steadfastness isn't built in a day: we must be as patient with ourselves as God is. Relationships, too, are inordinately slow work. My marriage marches at a snail's pace. To love another for the better and worse of the everyday is tedious—gratifying, yes, but not usually in the immediate sense. To parent requires the patience of farming. Over the years, we cultivate the lives of our children by planting and watering and weathering the temperamental change of the developmental seasons. But we must ultimately trust God for eventual growth (1 Cor. 3:6, 7).
Even drafting this essay without an Internet connection is a labor requiring patience.
To intentionally slow down, or to fast from fast, forces the transfer of loyalty from efficiency to the virtue of geological time, as Alexander X. Byrd, history professor at Rice University, describes in Good Busy. Geological time evaluates accomplishment by lifetimes, not by minutes, reminding us that we can save the nanoseconds and waste the years. It tolls the reminder that, "All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass" (1 Pet. 1:24).
Perhaps we lose more than we gain in our pressing eagerness to speed up the mechanics of the everyday. In The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr forces the important cost-benefit analysis of the automated world of convenience. Obliging ourselves to slow down is a needed apprenticeship for learning to be less machine—and more human. As Jacobs writes, The Glass Cage “comes to explores some deeper questions—questions that we can't even begin to answer without some conception of what counts as human flourishing."
When Lent has ended and we have celebrated the risen Christ, I hope that my conversion to slow, albeit reluctant and still emerging, will endure. I hope I'll continue creating moments of redolent pause: for playing with my daughter and her chinchilla, for entering long, uninterrupted stretches of silence, for waking with gratitude for my husband's warm breath on my face. These have been gifts of full-bodied presence. The only irony is, I found them in denial.
"The question for me is not whether there's a point to giving things up during Lent," writes Catholic author Maria de Lourdes Ruiz Scaperlanda, "but whether I should ever stop fasting from all that numbs, dulls and deadens me to life, all of life, as it is today—the good and the bad. Fasting makes me willing to try."