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Unplugged: A week without Internet left him room to be surprised

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By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2010; 11:56 AM

I had become a gadget.

After 15 years of clicking around the Internet, my surfing had become more predictable, with fewer surprises. I had programmed serendipity out of my life.

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A dozen RSS feeds automatically delivered to me exactly the news I thought I was looking for -- about the digital world, Apple products, behavioral economics, quirky political stories, the Red Sox, gadgets, media gossip and fountain pens. My Twitter feed piped in the same topics.

Didn't need a newspaper anymore. Stopped subscribing last year. I rarely visited Web sites I had bookmarked. No need to: All the news I wanted was delivered to me, at the time of my choosing.

Then I logged off.

Hello, surprises.

I took two newspapers to lunch with me every day. Whoa. Lovely obit of Lena Horne in The Post. Amazing story in the New York Times about AIDS in Uganda.

Liberation.

Instead of my iPad, Jaron Lanier, the inventor of virtual reality, accompanied me to my reclining chair each night. He has published a new book, "You Are Not a Gadget," a manifesto against the connected Web 2.0 world of Facebook, Twitter and targeted ads. He argues that this privacy-free Web world is stripping away what it means to be human.

It's all about the crowd now, he says. A crowd of people like us. A crowd of ideas we already know. "The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush," Lanier writes. "You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful."

I'm back online now, but I'm reading print newspapers again, too. They're making me realize there is a world outside the one I create in my head. The excitement now comes from not knowing what you are going to get. I check in on Twitter just once a day now. I removed the Twitter app from my phone. I click around the Web more, putting myself in position to be surprised.

I am not a gadget.


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