Notes on (Not) Unplugging

musings through the fog

Until recently, my relationship had been a long distance one. When my boyfriend arrived in California, my Internet suddenly shrunk. A dimension of it disappeared, and so did my longing. I no longer had to sift through a sea of status updates and tweets and ceaseless chatter to reach him, or send a WhatsApp message to greet him when I woke up. And, since my day was his night—as San Francisco and Cairo are nine hours apart—we no longer had to schedule Skype chats in our overlapping waking hours. And so, it has been one month of being together in the same city. Amid all of this change, and being able to talk face-to-face each day, I wonder: are my online habits changing?

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To unplug. To log off. To take a break from technology, to reimmerse ourselves in the real world, to put our phones down and talk to the person sitting in front of us, to connect and experience a moment the old-fashioned way. I read variations of this discussion everywhere, from Pico Iyer's "The Joy of Quiet" " to Sherry Turkle's "The Flight From Conversation" to comments on a recent post on my blog on information overload and my inability to write.

But these actions of "unplugging" and "logging off" just don't mean much anymore.

At the beginning of last year, when I began writing about my online friendships, my Internet worlds, and place and space in a digital world, I lived in two separate spheres, online and off. I felt my way through both worlds, navigating from one to the other and maintaining two selves, real and virtual.

But these worlds have since merged, and these words—real, virtual, online, offline, plugged, unplugged—have lost their meaning. The distinction between physical and digital has blurred, and I don't think there is a plug to pull to maneuver from one sphere to the other. Now, when I follow discussions on digital dualism—the perspective that our online and offline worlds are separate—I identify instead with views in favor of an augmented reality, where the physical and the digital, and atoms and bits, are enmeshed.

I think about this shift in me—how I confidently wrote last year about living in two distinct spheres, switching my virtual persona on as if putting on a hat, yet today operate freely and fearlessly in an ever-changing space with no such boundaries. And I sense that my relationship, which blossomed over the Internet and was nurtured by GMail and Twitter and WhatsApp and Skype for a year, forced me to acclimate to this fused world.

In our long distance spell, we created a space just for us online, where emailing and @replying felt just as special as holding hands and kissing. Maybe this is an exaggeration, but when we relied solely on the Internet to maintain our relationship, all of our actions, gestures, and conversations—whether by typing or touching, on screen or in the flesh—weighed the same.

Now that the main person with whom I communicated online shares my physical space, my Internet continues to morph. It has become something more than what it has been—more than a portal through which we have connected when geography has divided us, more than an online space of information and ideas and networks to which I connect with various devices. Because now that he is on this side of the world, sitting in the same room as me, I haven't abandoned, nor do I devalue, this online mode we've gotten so used to—I don't treat his texts or emails as less important than our face-to-face conversations.

It seems the Internet has become part of us—a layer that floats in our home. I thought it had disappeared—that I didn't need it anymore—but I sense this dimension of communication and interaction will always be there, whether or not we share the same time zone.