As any roommate I’ve ever had in the States can tell you, if I’m at home, I’m probably on my computer. I may be writing an article or editing some audio, but I’m more likely simply sucked into the abyss that is the internet. I’ve probably got 10-15 tabs open on my browser, and half of those will have video or some other multimedia element. The other half will have content that’s updating constantly, like Facebook or Twitter, and I’ve probably got a couple podcasts downloading too.
Those habits have changed since coming to South Africa. For one thing, the internet here is slow. A pigeon is faster. Literally. The other thing is that for something like in-home wifi, you don’t pay by the month, you pay by the amount. For instance, you might buy a gig’s worth of data, but that means every time you connect, the clock is ticking, and the more tabs you have open, videos you’re watching, or automatic updates you’re allowing, the faster the sand falls through the hourglass. Even coffee shops and cafes that offer wifi only give you a certain amount—usually 50 megs or so, which is fine for checking email, but not enough to have more than a 10 minute Skype chat or download an hour-long podcast.
The same is true for cell phones. No contracts, rather, load your phone with minutes and talk fast or SMS a lot. Clothes dryers are used sparingly. Showers have gotten shorter to avoid sudden hot water drop offs.
So I’ve adjusted. Three months ago, I would have told you I couldn’t function without weekly infusions of 30 Rock and Parks & Rec. Hulu doesn’t work in South Africa, so that took care of that. DJ Roomba does still sometimes mockingly haunt my dreams, but I’m slowly moving on.
The contrast between here and the States really hit after spending some days at Bulungula Lodge in the Eastern Cape. At this eco-lodge, if you wanted a hot shower, it involved lighting a fire at the base of the water pipes. Your hot water lasted as long as the fire. The toilets were the composting variety, so no need to even flush. After a few hours of adjusting, this seemed totally natural. Here, entire (amazingly temperature controlled) houses are biodegradable. When their time is up, the mud bricks and grass and stick thatching crumbles back into the earth. On the van ride out of the Transkei, I was listening to my fave quirky podcast, TBTL, and the host and producer, Luke and Jen were talking about the new studies that show how much energy DVR boxes use—as much as a refrigerator apparently. Normally quite levelheaded people, on this one, Luke and Jen refused to budge. Their response to the cable companies was basically, “FIX IT,” because neither was willing to give up their TiVo. I understand that part of their jobs is being informed, and thus, watching certain TV programs is essential, but damn. After being without electricity, not to even mention TV for a week, their complaints seemed utterly ridiculous.
And here’s the thing. When you’re not constantly watching TV or sending emails or posting updates on various social media outlets (and now with Google + you’re telling me I’ve got one more personal digital representation to worry about?), the feedback loop slows and the desire to constantly be checking these things fades. My online journalism professors would probably say this is bad for my digital footprint.
But you know what it’s good for? Dinner conversations. Seriously. When’s the last time you sat through a meal without someone checking something on a smart phone?
The other flip side is books. Like real paper ones. I’ve read more of them in the past 3 months than I did in the entire previous year. So many in fact, that I’ve run out and need to make another trip to the bookstore—my favorite one located a good walk across town. It’s moments like these when I wish I had a Kindle. I’ve vowed to get one as soon as I return to the States. But once I’m back in LA, dripping with it’s nectar of unlimited broadband, will I really have time to read again?
Here’s to hoping and the occasional, conscious internet disconnect–Spanish Pipe Dream style.