This article appeared in Technology Review, January 1995, pp. 64-65.

Christmas Unplugged

by Amy Bruckman

If I had a network link, I'd be home now.

From my chaise lounge on the terrace of my parents' Miami Beach apartment, I see a grid of four-lane roads with palm-treed median strips, yachts moored on the inland waterway, a golf course, and a dozen tall white condominiums. The hum of traffic is punctuated by the soft thunk of racquets striking tennis balls somewhere below. The temperature is in the 70s and a breeze blows through my toes. I am a long way from Boston. If I had a net link, I'd know exactly how far.

I'd know the weather forecast for Miami, and, if I cared, for Boston too. Just about anything you might like to know is out there on the worldwide computer network-- the Net-- if you know where to look.

It's Christmas day in Miami, but I'm not sure it would really be Christmas or I would really be in Miami if I were plugged into the Net. I would be in my virtual office, a "room" in the text-based virtual reality environment where I do most of my work. I have a desk there, piled with things to do, and a fish tank -- just like my "real" office. Except that the virtual fish don't need to be fed -- they're just a program I created one day while procrastinating from real work. My virtual office is just some data on a computer housed at MIT that I can tap into from anywhere, but it is a place to me. When I log onto the network, I am there.

And I would be there right now, if not for a difficult choice I made two days ago. I was packed for my trip south and had called a cab. I had the important things: airline ticket, wallet, bathing suit. I stood in the hall staring at a padded gray bag, the one containing my Macintosh Powerbook computer. I grabbed the bag, double-locked the door, and started to walk down the hall. I stopped. I went back, opened the door, and put down the gray bag. I stood in the doorway, feeling foolish. The taxi honked. The honk gave me courage: I locked up again, leaving my computer -- my office -- behind.

A vacation should be about escaping from routines; going somewhere else provides a new perspective. But when I travel with my Powerbook, I bring many of my routines with me. I can readily gain access to all my familiar tools for finding information. It's as if I never left. And that's the problem. Had I brought my Powerbook, I would not have written this essay (for which I am using a pencil). Instead, I would have logged onto the network and entered its seductive, engrossing world. By now I would have read the newswire and Miss Manners' column, answered a dozen questions from friends and colleagues, and possibly posted my thoughts on a movie I saw last night to a public discussion group. It would be as if I never left home.

The network destroys a sense of time as well as place. Daily and seasonal rhythms are subtle at best. As morning turns to evening, I am more likely to bump into my friends in Hawaii, less likely to encounter my friends in England. In the summer, things quiet down. April 1st is the only real network holiday -- don't believe anything you read that day! Beyond that, life on the net proceeds at an even, unpunctuated pace. There are no holiday decorations on the Net.

On my flight down here I saw a young boy carrying a sleek black bag on his shoulder. He held it naturally, but with a hint of importance. It took me a moment to see the logo: it contained his Nintendo Game Boy. His generation sees nothing remarkable about traveling at all times with a computer. It is already possible to connect to the network from a palm-sized computer with a cellular link. As computers get smaller and cheaper, we will lose even the excuse of the weight of that black bag or the cost of losing it.

The network is becoming an important part of the lives of a broader segment of the population. Its spread presents a worrisome challenge: is it ever possible for us to take uninterrupted time off any more? The new technologies of connectedness are pushing people to blend their many roles into one: personal mail is mixed with professional correspondence, and work crises arrive on a cellular phone during leisure time. If our colleagues and competitors have made themselves perpetually available, we feel all the more pressure to do the same, lest we be left behind. One or my colleagues deliberately vacations in places so remote that getting a Net connection is almost impossible -- it's the only way she can get a real break, and, for a little while at least, be a carefree newlywed instead of a world-renowned researcher. But such exotic locales are getting harder and harder to find.

I love the network and the people and places I find there. But sometimes I find it important to disconnect -- to leave the cellular phone and the beeper in a desk drawer, leave that padded gray bag at home. To be out of touch, not for hours but for days. To leave behind routines, both virtual and real.

Copyright 1995 by Technology Review.