Web addiction: can this man survive two days without the internet?
Ed Power sees if he can last a weekend with no Facebook, iPhone, email, Amazon . . .
This month's award for stating the bloody obvious goes to researchers in Leeds who have discovered a link between internet use and stress. The longer you spend online, they found, the higher your stress levels.
Hardly a bombshell, is it? Everyone knows the web and soaring blood pressure go together like Lady Gaga and telephone hats.
So much spam, so many unanswered mails and Facebook updates. And the constant fear you're not keeping up with everyone else. In the modern world, the only thing more anxiety-inducing than 20 unread mails in your inbox is none at all.
That's truer than ever nowadays. Thanks to the iPhone, it's hard to ever really switch off. You can Tweet from the toilet, tweak your Facebook status waiting for the bus and read TMZ whilst your eating your dinner. And now, the iPad is almost here (assuming Apple deign to make it available to the great unwashed living outside the US).
If things continue the way they are going, it will soon be impossible to escape the sticky tentacles of the web.
So this was my challenge: could I go cold turkey on the internet for two entire days? That meant: no email, no Facebook, no perusing message boards to seek out people whose opinions I agreed with, and no panhandling Wikipedia for random information.
Worst of all, I'd have to give up Spotify, the music streaming website which, for €10 a month, lets me access whatever songs I feel like from my mobile phone.
As a self-employed grunt entirely reliant on email to drum up work, the potential for cyber-stress is greater still. Because you never know when an editor is going to get in touch asking you to write something, you can never stop checking your mail. More than once, I've almost wandered into traffic whilst glaring at my phone.
Plus, I use the web for socialising. There is Facebook obviously, the best method yet invented for staying in touch with people you have to pretend to like for professional reasons (sorry Facebook buddies -- I swear it's not true). I also play an online Dungeons and Dragons game over Skype (don't look at me that way -- your pity is useless). And I recently bought an eBook reader. When not gazing at my iPhone or desktop, I'm gawping at that (I'm not an entirely hopeless case -- I still haven't figured out what the 'z' in 'lolz' stands for ).
Of course, there is one item of technology we're all using less and less: the phone. Aside from immediate family and friends, how many people do you actually speak with by phone on a regular basis? There are individuals with whom I have working relationships that I've barely exchanged five sentences with, let alone sat down for 'face time'.
Day one of my experiment is a cold and dreary Saturday. Like the 99pc of men whom, according to Microsoft, check their email on a daily basis, my first instinct upon waking is to stagger to my computer and see what overnight missives Gmail has sent my way. Remembering I'm supposed to have 'decoupled' myself from the web, I settle for a magazine that had rested, still wrapped in plastic, by my bed for nearly a week.
Here's the funny thing. Whilst perusing an article, I am repeatedly overcome by the urge to 'click' on a word and read more about it. Passive grazing isn't sufficient. Over the past 10 years we have been reprogrammed to read as if we are scouring the web, free to jump between subject matter at will.
By mid-morning, I'm increasingly twitchy. It is the weekend. Who of consequence could be emailing me? Well, that's precisely the point. If someone mails me on a Saturday morning, it would have to be REALLY important. And I'm doing what?
Shuffling around my kitchen trying to fill the time. Being disconnected from cyberspace is a bit like being disconnected from reality.
"Web addiction" isn't a figment of the media's imagination. The condition was identified back in 1997, when many of us weren't even online yet. As a pathology it has been likened to reckless gambling.
More recently sociologists found that those who use the web to excess were more likely to suffer from depression.
According to the Institute of Psychological Science at Leeds University, net addicts were at greater risk of feelings of isolation and helplessness "because they are substituting the net for normal social activities".
In China, web addiction has become such a public health issue the government has licensed official clinics for treating the condition.
At these centres, addicts are subjected to extreme, often distressing 'remedies'. Some are exposed to electro-shock treatment. Others receive a clear fluid through intravenous drips said to "adjust the unbalanced status of brain secretions".
Perhaps it's self-delusion. Still, I would like to think I'm not quite at the stage of needing electrodes clamped to my nether regions to cut down on web use.
That said, 48 hours without the net soon becomes, if not an ordeal, then an extended flirtation with drudgery. That's the thing about 'meatspace' -- as hardcore geeks call reality. Compared to the constant stimulations of the internet, it's so incredibly dreary.
Come Saturday afternoon the urge to go online was maddening. I often combine web-surfing with listening to the radio or watching TV.
It's only when you are forced to go without your laptop that you realise how screamingly dull most TV is. After 20 minutes of mindless channel hopping, I wanted to double over and sob (I really wanted to go online, but doubling over and sobbing felt like a good fallback).
The following morning and the itch is worse yet. Twenty-four hours without consulting my iPhone or looking at Amazon is testing my powers of resolve in ways I hadn't imagined possible. Terrifyingly, I experience the urge to do things I never normally would, such as update my Facebook status so that everybody knows what drudgery is occupying me right now, or, deargodhelpus, start a Twitter account (my attitude is: why share extraneous personal details with strangers?)
For a few crazy moments, I even contemplate going to mass. God is supposed to help you with this kind of stuff right? I start to wonder why I signed up for such a crazy experiment in the first place.
The second part of the experiment demands I have actual conversations with people with whom I normally communicate via email.
Because the iPhone is locked away upstairs, I am forced to use the hideous, brick-like home phone. It's so huge and clunky it feels as if I'm speaking into a plastic banana.
I'm phoning a friend who has returned to Ireland for a few days. We go back a way, but when he fails to pick up I'm almost relieved. Will I leave a voicemail? Nah -- I'll send him a mail later. By the time I've hung up I've remembered 'later' is next Monday.
Strangely it is Facebook that proves my undoing. Like many people I'm ambivalent about social networking. Obviously, it's great to reach out to long lost friends. Or is it? Didn't they become 'long lost' for a reason?
Anyway, the moment I crumble is at a rock concert so scream-out-loud awful I can't help but share. In case of emergency I've brought my phone. With trembling hands, I fire up Facebook and update my 'status'.
The experiment is over. I've officially failed. Needless to say, I don't care. I've just received an email from a company importing iPads from the US. Has anyone seen my credit card?