The Revenge of Dial-Up Internet

The Revenge of Dial-Up Internet

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu


Because slow and steady wins the race.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Jack Cheng stalls during our Skype call, mulling over his words in a pause so long that I toggle my Wi-Fi connection to make certain I haven’t lost him. But then again, his mindful precision is exactly the point. Our 10-minute chat turns into a 45-minute meditation on life. With a wispy, bohemian ponytail and Harry Potter-esque spectacles, Cheng is an improbable but determined soldier waging a war against the Web — just don’t expect it to go viral. “That’s not the plan,” the 33-year-old startup-founder-turned-novelist says, softly and slowly.

The “click-me, like-me, tweet-me, share-me” Web is spiraling out of control, Cheng says from Detroit, a city that has long decelerated since its Motor City heyday. But fear not: A budding online movement called the Slow Web could be the unlikely antidote to today’s information overload. Above the deafening pings and dings of the digital world, Cheng is championing a healthier, more soulful way to consume the Internet and turn off “the fire hose of information” that overwhelms us daily. In other words, a “gentler, saner experience of the Web,” he says.

We’re up against the Web industrial complex. … That’s the big challenge, a kind of detoxification, a relearning of how to use the Web.

Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow

More than 30 years ago, the charge against fast living began in Italy with a protest led by food connoisseur Carlo Petrini over the opening of a McDonald’s in the center of Rome. That launched the wider Slow Movement, which advocates a more measured pace in everything from cinema to parenting to gardening. And now the movement is turning its attention to the Web, where the online war for your attention is accelerating faster than many people can handle. A study at the University of London found that the problem-solving skills of workers who responded quickly to the endless deluge of emails throughout the day fell by the equivalent of 10 IQ points — about twice the IQ slump of someone smoking weed. In response, digital rehabs and technological sabbaticals like Digital Detox, Camp Grounded and Reboot have risen in popularity across Texas, California, New York and North Carolina.

But what exactly does a healthier relationship to the internet entail? Paradoxically, in an attempt to solve tech addictions with more tech, some Slow Webbers are deploying a growing crop of apps to manage the floodgates of their online feeds. iDoneThis helps users take stock of the things they’ve accomplished each day. Budge gently nudges people to do the daily things like meditating or flossing that improve their lives in brief but meaningful ways. The anti-instant messaging app Jack allows senders to delay the time when their message can be opened, from an hour to a decade to whenever, while Timehop acts as a time capsule to help users remember and reflect on their most cherished memories. “The app makes you confront the past [and] gives you a space to reflect inside this battlefield that the Web is becoming,” says Timehop’s chief operating officer, the coincidentally named Rick Webb. Collectively, these apps have hundreds of millions of users and are quickly growing their audience of formerly fatigued Fast Webbers. 

Beyond minimalist apps, the principles of the Slow Web can also be found in other forms: cafés that offer patrons slow dial-up over faster Wi-Fi connections; laws in France that ban checking business emails after working hours; wearable sensors that deliver rewards (“calm points”) for breathing well while you work; software that lets friends collectively disable their smartphones during a restaurant meal; and “zenware” designed to block distractions. Just imagine a “book” that retains many elements of the Fast Web — breathtaking knowledge, extraordinary accessibility, exhilarating connectivity — but it’s distinctly “unhurried, reconsidered and additive. Fresh thinking would no longer have to happen in real time,” says Rebecca Blood, a Slow Web devotee and writer. Writers and researchers, for example, could budget sufficient dreamtime before committing words to pixels. Meanwhile, conclusions would be intentionally postponed until sufficiently noodled with.

But what about Internet users who want to slow down, but their jobs won’t let them? People whose profession revolves around deadlines and time-sensitive material — journalists, bankers and many others — would be up in arms if the Internet slowed down even a split second, admits Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slow. “We’re up against the Web industrial complex,” he says, in which even the most well-intentioned businesses are driven by more content, more clicks, more swipes and ultimately getting more people addicted to their product. The Slow Web movement stands at odds with these realities. “That’s the big challenge,” Honoré says, “a kind of detoxification, a relearning of how to use the Web.”

Even so, the Slow Web movement presents a third way, a happy middle ground for people who fall somewhere on the spectrum between speed junkies and Luddites who want to unplug and go off the grid. “The Web appears to work in only one speed,” Honoré says. “We want everything to happen seamlessly and as fast as possible. That’s the drumbeat, the keynote of the cultural conversation around the Web.” But the Slow Web is all about “humanizing the pace of the Web again.” In other words, adds Cheng, you can “step out of the daily grind … without needing to disappear to the wilderness of British Columbia.” No longer will the Web exist in a binary choice of off and on.

While the Slow Web movement may seem ill-fated in a world where high-speed connectivity reigns supreme, there’s already a hankering for slower, deeper experiences online. So, is the Slow Web movement doomed from the beginning? Maybe we’ll just have to slow down, wait and see.