Tuning in and Turning off: how I hacked modern life by quitting my home internet service

I cancelled my home internet service a few months ago and the result is the biggest boost to my quality of life since upgrading from dial-up to modem.

The brilliant idea to quit wasn’t mine. My partner Dan and I met a guy named Dennis from Denmark on the ferry to Lasqueti Island. Our intention was to see if we might fit in with Lasqueti’s off-grid community, and our new friend was headed to a farm to work in exchange for food and lodging. Dennis asked if he could stay at our house in Victoria the following weekend, with one condition: we had to turn off our wifi. He said he was having a health problem that was aggravated by wifi radiation. We looked at him sideways, but he seemed nice and mostly sane, so we obliged.

It may have been our imaginations, or a reflection of our inner states, but we agreed it seemed quieter and more peaceful in our house with the internet turned off. Dan started to talk about permanently quitting the internet at home – “going dark” as he called it. At first I didn’t take him seriously. But, the idea quickly ballooned as he read articles on the topic and began talking about it all the time. He was serious.

I was resistant. It sounded inconvenient, bordering on impossible with all the functions the internet serves in both my work and social lives, and what about Soundcloud and Youtube! But, I knew my internet habits were unhealthy. My lack of self-control when it comes to endless Facebook scrolling and unnecessary ‘checking’ was getting worse. I would want to read a book, but I’d open my laptop just to check my e-mail and twenty minutes later I’d be hunched over my computer looking at the Facebook profile of someone I’d never met and had little to no connection to. I could not remember at what point I had made the choice to do this, because I hadn’t consciously chosen. It bothered me tremendously. Dan’s habit of staying up late watching and reading news clips and brooding about the state of the world was also plaguing both of us. Yet, for whatever reason, we didn’t have the will to set limits and pull ourselves away.

With some deliberation, and an underlined clause that we could sign back up any time we liked, we set a date to disrupt the status quo. When the day arrived I went to the fancy new Shaw Communications building and returned our modem.

It stung a bit, but as with ripping off a band-aid, the discomfort quickly faded. An internet-free household was almost instantly better then normal, it was wholesome. As expected, the biggest changes have been in the realms of communication and news intake. Instead of emailing someone, I am now more likely to call them– using the phone book and a level of bravery that emails with all their forethought and one-sidedness don’t require. However brief, the resulting human connection is a tangible thing, and I have fewer instances of side-tracking without follow through; I have to really want the thing I’m going for if I make the effort to call someone about it, whereas late-night surfing sometimes led me down a tangential line that I later had to back out of.

When it comes to news intake, I spend way less time skim-reading my Facebook feed in the distracted manner resulting from ads and posts in the margins and screen-time overload. I am more likely to turn on the radio and hear the six o’clock news or pick up a magazine or news-paper. When I do go to a wifi hotspot and get news through Facebook or my favourite online news sources, like The Tyee or DeSmog, I have a dedicated and concentrated time-frame in which to do so. There is more weight to the communications I make and intake when I’ve consciously chosen the time in which I do so. Also, my eyes feel better from less screen-time, as does my body from no longer slumping into the couch on my laptop.

Despite the instant access to information and goods that the internet provides, first world people are more dis-satisfied and dislocated than ever. My generation is hungry, and no matter how good our boolean phrasing, the sustenance we seek cannot be found online. I’ve been finding nourishment in old cookbooks, and by calling my Mom to find out how my grandmother made sourdough bread. Activities like using city maps and bus schedules, and making more trips to the library and Pic-a-Flic the one surviving movie store in my area – have been surprisingly satiating.

While looking through the documentary section at Pic-a-Flic recently, I found Happy People: a year in the Taiga, co-directed by Werner Herzog and DmitryVasyukov. It follows a small community living in an extremely remote area of Northern Russia. The area is accessible by boat and helicopter in the summer but is essentially cut off from supplies and modern conveniences when it becomes a frozen tundra, which is much of the year. These people rely on and continue to build on the skills and technologies passed down for generations. It may sound bleak to some, but the film pointed to a deep contentment that comes from drawing on what is within and making the most of even the harshest environment in order to thrive.

I may be a romantic, but I believe we could be not only happier, but more intelligent with fewer modern conveniences. Having to remember and practice knowledge rather than rely on the information superhighway may build a stronger, more adaptable, brain. In the book Thinking: the new science of decision-making, problem-solving and prediction edited by John Brockman, there is an essay that theorizes getting all of our information from the internet causes our brains to specialize, forming neurological superhighways. Brockman has also compiled a book of essays called, How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? I’ve only read the reviews but it sounds as though there are nuanced arguments both in favour of this great thought experiment and against the internet’s distracting and narcissism-feeding qualities. If you want a more sophisticated argument read those books. Based on my experience, and without getting all apocalyptic, having to work a little harder to get information forms new and unexpected connections – I now see it as an adventure rather than an inconvenience – and regardless of what the future holds for civilization, this can only be a good thing.

If you think I’m a hypocrite for posting this article, ranting about how great it is to go off the internet, on the internet, I implore you to see this as a compromise. I’m not an analogue girl in a digital world. I experience a myriad of awesome benefits from the internet and I’m a big fan. I’ve just changed my own game. I never got a data plan for my phone because I doubted my strength to resist the constant urge. Turning off the internet at home was a solution to spending too much time on the internet and the result is more space and time in my home life to feed my yearnings for creativity and connection.

I still feel the urge of internet dependency creep up inside me, but more often now I don’t feed that demon. When I think through the effort involved in leaving the house to go to a cafe or the library it doesn’t always seem worth it. If it’s really important there are dozens of places nearby that I can go, but oftentimes I realize it’s neither urgent nor necessary. I keep a list of things to look up and people to communicate with. My online office hours are strictly defined by the time I have, or wish to spend, away from home. The world waits.

I’m not saying everyone should necessarily quit the internet at home, but perhaps you’ve read this far because you can relate to the problems Dan and I were having. If you are searching for some relief from constant suffering, I mean surfing, I highly recommend taking the wire out of wireless internet. There is actually very little to lose. If you don’t like it, your ex-provider will gladly take you back. And, did I mention that we save $50 a month? If I had to though, I’d pay for this internet-free home life. Becoming sufficiently attentive to my life is worth it.

From Chaos to Easy Listening: How the genre map has changed and why that’s good for a band called Bent Knee

Love does weird things to people. I fell in love with the band Bent Knee from Boston, Massachusetts, and as result, I began to worry about them. I wondered if, despite their lovability and greatness, they were dooming themselves to obscurity by virtue of being difficult to define. The benefit of such worry is that I ended up learning some interesting things. As I questioned whether fitting into a mold was important to the band-I-love’s success, the world of musical genres and their meanings opened up to me. It turns out genre is a rapidly evolving system for organizing chaos, which is in line with how I see Bent Knee’s music. A little illumination on the genre subject has gone a long way.

My love affair started with a whispered chanting on the stage: “Friendship. Friendship. Friendship.” On cue the crowd joined in, then in coordinated fashion we began to stand up, shake the grass off our blankets and put our things to the side, opening up a dance-floor. It was the summer solstice of 2014 at the Campbell Bay Music Festival on Mayne Island, B.C. The crowd had been drifting, conversing, drinking beer and cider out of plastic cups, but the casual atmosphere evaporated as the headlining band began this unusual introduction.

An electricity charged through the air as the chanting grew louder. A kick drum began a heart-beat rhythm in time to the chanting. A crisp, bright wailing soared above it all: a voice that made the hairs on my arms stand in attention. The music’s long crescendo expertly climaxed with a melody, layered in harmonies, that created an emotional landscape of heart-breaking intensity. Together, crowd and band, launched. The previously mild-mannered, mostly 30 to 50 something, audience danced as a single, seething mob. At times we head-banged, at other times we swayed arm in arm. I saw tears in my friend’s eyes as we looked at each other in wonder of this experience. What we were seeing was Bent Knee and for me the experience was true love.

My excitement led me to write my first music review, followed by a review of their second studio album, Shiny Eyed Babies. The band liked what I wrote. They quoted me on their website and when they came to Vancouver last year they asked me to interview them; I was all over it. Our interview consisted of only a brief history of the band: Their sorcery-like talent was honed at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where over the last seven years they have gained a fair amount of attention from the press and the public. With over 300 shows under their belt, they are steadily gaining a following across the U.S. and Canada. We turned to talking about the music.

With the innocence of a newbie reviewer who wanted to get it right, I asked them how they define their music. The six of them spent the next 45 minutes – in what became a two hour interview – talking about what their music is not.

While they are often pegged as progressive rock, drummer Gavin Wallace-Ailsworth says, “We did not choose progressive rock – it chose us.” He goes on to say that groups like Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and King Crimson were all, at times, pegged as progressive rock because they took things in new and interesting directions. In that respect he says being called progressive is an honour. Chris Baum, violinist, interrupts to say, “In rock, guitar fills a lot more of the sonic spectrum then it does in our band.” Keyboardist and lead vocalist, Courtney Swain, chimes in too, explaining that the six of them come together with a broad array of influences and use a consensus decision-making process in order to include their influences without copying them. She says, “It’s like we are trying to navigate a ferry without touching all these islands of genres and clichés,” adding that rock people would not typically expect to hear Bent Knee’s music on their Pandora playlist.” Pandora is a lot like Spotify, and if you’re still lost, don’t fear, I’ll talk more about this later.

I have read a number of reviews of Bent Knee’s music over the past couple of years and I commonly read the term “genre-defying” to describe it. The term seems lazy and I keep trying to find a more apt description. Bent Knee’s music is unique but not overtly experimental; there are plenty of obvious influences and references to the music of other artists. In fact, they shared a long list of inspirations that included: Sonlux, the Tuneyards, Fiona Apple, Peter Gabriel, Rush, Sheena Ringo (a Japanese pop-star), Kendrik Lamar, Stravinsky, among many others. Their music is notably orchestral through which I hear Sigor Ros and Radiohead. I consider myself adept at coming up with titles and categories, but other than a bad joke about Fraggle Rock – an 80’s children’s show reference that was lost on the band of 20 somethings – I had nothing.

The best term they have come up with so far is art-rock, which Baum says is “a catch all term for things that aren’t immediately quantifiable,” and includes the music of Brian Eno, Modest Mouse and The Residents. But, guitarist Ben Levin is dis-satisfied with the term. He says of art-rock, “I see a very thin guy in tight jeans drinking coffee while wading through Spotify on his phone and being like, ‘I guess I will listen to this,’ because he hates the rest.” With broad tastes, as well as untraditional and evolving ways of combining them, Bent Knee defies categorization.

At first, genre-defiance seemed to me to be a part of the band’s power and mystique. They were doing something risky and exciting. The fact that their audience, as Baum puts it, “ is generally people interested in the fringe,” appealed to me. But, when I ask where it is all going, Levin says, “The vision is to grow as large as we can and get to as many people as we can.” Then, in a dreamy voice Bassist Jessica Kion describes the tour bus they will own, which will diminish the need for pee breaks. She says she will call up her favourite musicians to chat, just because she can. It was these grandiose visions, conveyed fairly lightly, that initiated my worry on their behalf and the nerdy rant I’m about to go on. Could a genre-defying fringe band have that kind of mass appeal?

To answer this question I looked to the all-knowing Google oracle, for a better understanding of what genre is. It tells me the obvious: genre is a tool for categorizing art; it’s used to define and to find the styles of a particular form of art, and to talk about and critique them. From a musicological perspective, music belonging to a genre shares certain conventions or traditions, things like structure, instrumentation and rhythm. This explains why Bent Knee is rock music but also defies rock; they use traditional rock instrumentation and rhythm but their structures and dynamics are more typically associated with classical music, electronic and pop music. The problem with the term rock seems to me that it’s too broad. Today, when there are so many great bands, it is unlikely one will find the avant-garde music of a band like Bent Knee under the massive umbrella of rock.

Musical genres can also be examined from a sociocultural perspective. Heterogeneous elements of economic status and cultural upbringing can influence who listens to a particular kind of music, and how they classify it. This way of looking at genre can involve a lot of classism and stereotyping, but it also has to do with the location and conditions in which a certain kind of music is born and flourishes. Black Gospel music, Jazz improvisation, Opera and Punk, for example, can all be understood as cultural manifestations, and their subsequent dissemination or lack thereof, influenced by various factors: from geography and economics status, to available forms of media and systemic oppression. Mindful that this touches on – without diving into – the much larger discussion on appropriation, the nature of music has been to evolve by taking from and defying what came before. 

From a sociological angle, maybe art-rock is a good fit for Bent Knee. They are a bunch of art school graduates after all. As Baum attests, and I witnessed at Campbell Bay Music Festival, their music appeals to people on the undefinable ‘fringes’, to musicians and ‘artsy’ types. Having recently signed to Cuneiform Records, a well-established American label, known for “championing genre-defying music,” they are establishing themselves among other ‘artsy’ types. Cuneiform’s artists are drawing from a wide sphere: sub-cultures, traditional world folk-cultures, pop-culture and what was once considered high-culture. Admittedly, I see “post-jazz” on the list of styles and I read, ‘elitist’ – not mainstream and widely accessible. Still, this exploration of genre has led me to believe that Cuneiform can maintain it’s mandate of, “avoiding music’s oft-travelled mainstream,” as their website decrees, without necessarily limiting the possibility of Bent Knee becoming popular.

These days, the lines between what is fringe, what is elitist and what is popular are blurry. Compared to 20 years ago, the internet allows us to access underground music more easily, and to make it popular without a mainstream consensus. In the not-too-distant past, a lot of the music that became popular did so because it was deemed commercially viable, and received a huge amount of financial and promotional backing from a major label. Today, a band still has to get out there and tour and promote but the internet and the free flow of music as a result of file sharing have evened the playing field in some regards – it’s possible for artists to become famous without a major label behind them. The speed at which music can become popular makes it seem as though we live in a post-underground world. Access to music is greatly increased if you have access to a computer and you know where and how to look.

Admittedly, I have not fully cracked the rules of looking for and finding music under the new conditions of algorithmic playlists. Spotify, Pandora.com, and now Apple Music, allow us to find music in a very different way than we did at the record store, or on the radio – using moods and context to magically conjure up playlists. When Swain said that rock people would not expect to hear Bent Knee on their Pandora playlist, she may have been speaking to holes appearing in the genre umbrellas. With increased access to diverse influences and the aid of all-knowing algorithms rock has become a more permeable category. As I’ve discovered, the world of musical categorization has become more nuanced then the average listener may yet be aware of.

The new genre game is all about order and specificity, and it is made possible at the intersection where really nerdy people and algorithmic computing meet. According to Glen McDonald, head engineer at Spotify’s Echo Nest and creator of the Every Noise at Once Project, there are 1434 meta-genres. Music is organized into these genres by a computer program that analyzes layers upon layers of data, both from the music itself and from what people are saying about music on the internet. Then real people at Echo Nest provide the computers with editorial guidance, such as decisions about whether there are enough songs in a burgeoning style to warrant the birth of a new genre. At everynoise.com you can see and hear all of these genres organized spatially on a map. Organic music is higher up, and electronic and mechanical music are lower. Less dense and more atmospheric music are to the left and spikier (whatever that means), bouncier music are to the right. These algorithms and editors generate your playlists on Spotify, and a similar program, called the musical genome project, creates – for America’s eyes only – Pandora playlists.

Underground and counter-culture music are now just as visible on a simple map as mainstream music, making everything accessible, turning it all into popular music. While computers and their human counterparts are busy organizing all the randomness into easy to digest categories, bands like Bent Knee are free to be as eclectic as they wish. I may not have enough sense of the big picture to come up with a novel genre for Bent Knee but odds are it’s already out there. As long as someone is talking about the band, using words to describe their music, they will get on the map sooner or later. In the end, my love for Bent Knee led me to a beautiful vision: Bands are stars in a musical cyber galaxy — if they shine bright enough for long enough, eventually we will discover them. Bent Knee is well on their way to stardom.