The Disconnect: A digital magazine that forces you to unplug from the Internet

At first glance, it seems like an oxymoron: A magazine that exists only on the Internet, filled with content that can only be consumed once you have disconnected from the Internet. But that’s exactly the kind of contradiction founder Chris Bolin says he was going for when he created his new magazine, The Disconnect.

Bolin makes a point of saying he isn’t some kind of Internet-hating Luddite, trying to show how evil the global computer network or technology in general is. In fact, he’s a computer programmer who works with digital technologies for a living, with no background in publishing literary magazines. So why did he create one that makes such a dramatic point about the need to disconnect from the Internet?

“I created it in part because I think it’s funny to use irony in that kind of way — to have a piece of the Internet that forces you to leave the Internet,” Bolin said in an interview with CJR. “To create something new that functions as commentary but is also participatory, in that it forces you to participate by disconnecting.”

And how does it do that? Bolin says it takes advantage of a function built into most web browsers, which detects whether a user is connected to the Internet. There are ways around that process, he says — for example, by putting the browser into developer mode — but he figures most people probably won’t go to those lengths. Plus, the request to disconnect is mostly designed to make a point.

“I guess it’s kind of like a paywall,” Bolin says of the banner on the site that asks users to turn off their connection. “But it’s more of a pay-attention wall.”

The process works because all of the content is downloaded when a user first visits the site, but access isn’t provided until the browser detects that it is no longer connected. Bolin says the entire magazine is only about 250 kilobytes because there are few images and no ads. The content consists of essays — including one that argues getting away from the Internet has become a privilege — as well as poetry and fiction.

Bolin says he was driven to create The Disconnect in part because he noticed his own tendency towards a kind of Internet addiction, where you find yourself following link after link for no real purpose, until you have disappeared down a rabbit hole and you look up to see that hours have gone by.

There are a number of different apps that are designed to help users focus on a task and screen out some of the random interruptions that occur when you’re online, but Bolin says he personally found that sometimes the only way to really get away from that kind of distraction was to actually pull the plug, something he says he did occasionally while trying to write his graduate thesis. “It’s disconnecting as a way of saving you from yourself.”

Bolin first experimented with a site called Offline, which contained a single essay by the same name that talked about the need to disconnect, which could only be viewed once a user had disconnected.

As he put it in the essay: “I have spent hours caught in webs of my own curiosity. Most dangerous is the split-second whim: ‘I wonder what the second most commonly spoken language is?’ Those 500 milliseconds could change your day, because it’s never just one Google search, never just one Wikipedia article. Disconnecting from the internet short-circuits those whims, allowing you to move on unencumbered.

The Internet is a tremendously useful thing, says Bolin. “But it’s not really designed for people — or rather it’s designed for perfect people. If you were a machine, you could decide which links you see are relevant to your task and just follow those. But for human beings, the unknown is always more interesting than the known, so maybe you open a link in another tab — it’s kind of the thrill of the hunt.”

With the magazine, Bolin says he wanted to encourage people to think about their need for a constant connection to the Internet or the web. ” Overall I think Internet is a good thing, but I also think it’s beneficial to go through the process of removing yourself from that thing and forcing yourself to think about what’s good about it and what’s not. This isn’t a Luddite rallying cry, the Internet is here to stay, but confronting it and thinking about it and what it means still seems like a good idea.”

One response he has gotten to the idea of The Disconnect, says Bolin, is a kind of sarcastic suggestion that if he really wanted to create something where people couldn’t read it online, he could have just published a regular printed magazine instead of going to such lengths.

“The sardonic take is ‘Hey, congratulations, you’ve invented a magazine,'” he says. “But in this case in order to get it, you don’t have to order it, you don’t have to go to a newsstand, you don’t even have to have a physical address, you don’t have to waste trees, and so on.”

 

 

“I don’t think the internet is bad — in fact, I think it is very good,” says Bolin. “It does a great job of connecting people who would never be connected, and creating business opportunities, just like the printing press was a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I just think we should reflect on it a bit.”

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