The Upsides to Working Without Internet Access for 80 Days


Yes, there may be upsides.


This is Harriot Daley, the first-ever Capitol phone operator. She took the job in 1898 and was still going strong in 1937, when she had a staff of 37. Library of Congress.

The Washington Post reports a rare protracted network shutdown in a small division of the Department of Commerce. To avoid contaminating the rest of the department, the 215-employee Economic Development Administration has been offline for 80 days:

E-mail? Gone. Attachments, scans, Google searches? Until further notice, no such thing.

Employees became reacquainted with their neighborhood post office and the beep-squeak-hiss of the fax machine. The must-have office supply switched from iPhone to toner.

Twelve weeks offline and the longest intrusion into a federal network in recent history is still wreaking havoc.

Obviously, losing access to the Internet had some downsides. But no one can deny that there has been a positive side, more personal contact:

"You pick up your phone and you get back to some human interaction," said Chris Massengill of the Delta Regional Authority in Clarksdale, Miss., which works with the federal government to jumpstart development in the Delta, "which in my opinion is never a bad thing, especially for government."

Of course it helped that many staff members were veterans who could recall pre-Web operations. And I doubt that even the most ardent neo-Luddites would really want a return to the Civil War days of the steel pen. Yet it's also a reminder of how 19th-century people managed to get the job done with amazing efficiency and even their own version of high-tech, like the ventilating system of Washington's Pension Building, a model of sustainable design with vast unobstructed open spaces, ample natural light, and enhanced air circulation. 

The real lesson of outages is not nostalgia but a reminder that networks, e-mail, and social media can easily become a communication monoculture that almost entirely shuts out other modes. This was already apparent nearly 25 years ago in Shoshana Zuboff's Age of the Smart Machine. It would be worth studying unexpected positive results of outages like these, not to undermine innovation, but to see how older communication modes can be used best in the new environment.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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