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Russell Wangersky: Making time to live offline

Fishing shed, Monkstown, Newfoundland.
Fishing shed, Monkstown, Newfoundland.

Shooting down the slippery dirt road to Monkstown, water everywhere and the rain pounding down, the road taking all my attention the way it should. Sometimes deep loose gravel, sometimes slick mud, sometimes bare sheets of stone. Both sides of the road a symphony of Newfoundland fall colours, sedge and beige and brown.

Russell Wangersky

Sometimes deep loose gravel, sometimes slick mud, sometimes bare sheets of stone. Both sides of the road a symphony of Newfoundland fall colours, sedge and beige and brown.

It’s 27 kilometres, threaded through ponds and gullies, with regular culverts carrying brown water from one side of the road, and at the end of it, a handful of houses on a great long sheltered bay, the other side’s horizon a rollercoaster of rounding grey-black hills, a town as much at the end of the road as any place I have ever been.

You could stop the world out there, turn it down to the slow, square-by-square pace of the calendar, and never miss anything else. The perfect place to be out of reach — exactly what I wanted.

I had my phone with me, that juggernaut of instant communication and constant Pavlovian distraction. But after a bruising Saturday online, I had the thing locked down in airplane mode. I was tired of hate and sarcasm, of the kind of quick cruelty that people dispense electronically, but would never deliver in person.

Not once did the phone shiver or sing. I sang, though, and stood in the rain watching water carve and spin a mat of foam on the water’s surface at a roadside culvert. I drove and rockpicked quarries, stood and listened to the exhaust system on the car ping as it cooled.

I thought about that again Monday morning, as I passed, invisible, along a row of parked, running cars where every university student driver was praying, their heads bowed to their phones in complete concentration. And I thought about a weekend New York Times article — paradoxically, delivered to me by Twitter — suggesting that it might be a good idea to hang up on social media. To save the time, and to save your ability to concentrate deeply on complex subjects. I know the article is right; I know how the sharp jabs of constant contact derail the long game, whether it’s writing, reading or simply meditating.

And I came to a small decision.

I think social media is valuable — or at least, I think there are valuable parts to it. It certainly gets information out fast, and often, and that information is useful. Often, as well, it’s false. I’ve been a journalist for a long time; I know what libel looks like, and I know I see plenty of postings every day that are actionable, if people had the time and inclination to take action.

But while there is value, I wonder if the value is worth the time invested and the damage clearly done. Does it make me a more complete journalist? No. Does it make me a happier person? Definitely not.

I know my employers would prefer us all to be multi-skilled, to have a hand in social media and a presence — an online personality, as strange a concept as that is. Perhaps an online simulacrum would be a better term, a reasonably drawn electronic facsimile.

There are journalists whose social media presences are leading-edge, whose work online is significant and timely and worthwhile.

I think my skills lie somewhere else — and maybe I should rethink how I use time. Close a few windows, perhaps.

And I don’t think it’s an “old dogs and new tricks” sort of thing. Maybe it’s just there are better — and happier — ways to spend my time.

In downtown Monkstown (I’m joking), the road curls along the base of a huge cliff, and a brook runs die-straight down it. And on Sunday, in high water, it was worth watching for ages.

Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at — Twitter: @Wangersky.

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