Once upon a time, not so long ago, before I left the internet...
I was sitting in my coffee shop, and the Wi-Fi wasn't working well. It would give me fat bandwidth in spurts, and then stall on any mission-critical website. It was infuriating. In spite, I set a file to download, and watched the Kbps fluctuate from the single digits, to triple, and back again. IRC, the only service I use that seems designed for these pre-broadband horrors, was saving up messages and then delivering them in bursts every couple of minutes.
I'm a regular at my coffee shop, and this was a common occurrence, so I asked, like I had so many times before, if they could restart the modem upstairs. They would, they said. And so I waited.
A shoddy connection is much worse than no connection
A shoddy connection is much worse than no connection, in my opinion. For one, shoddy internet holds the potential of improvement, stringing you along, while broken internet speaks plainly, letting you know you don't have a chance. But the greater danger of the shoddy is that you can often load ultralight pages full of links, but rarely what the links actually link to. So you can find a YouTube video, but not watch it, Google for an answer, but not be able to read it. If you're a "power user," like myself, you could make the fatal mistake of having several link paths in several tabs, primed for travel, and then rotate through each of them, clicking on links that promise the world, and only load the page title.
In my case, I'd managed to load a Reddit comment thread, and I'd followed it to a high-priority GIF, and that GIF was just bits away from loading. Because every Wi-Fi signal traces back to broadband of some sort, I don't find any advantages in "waiting" for things to load over a slow connection. Instead I retry, reconnect, retry, change browsers, and retry again. My GIF started to weary of the process, loading less and less on each retry. There was a war of attrition in the happening, but I was on the losing side.
Meanwhile, in Spotify, I was getting a few seconds of a Sleigh Bells song to play at a time, and then it'd buffer and hang. So I'd restart the song and listen to it a few seconds more. I jumped to Safari to check on my download: a minuscule Minecraft mod, whose obstinacy was impressive, given that something that small should slip through the cracks in even the worst data droughts.
I banged a fist on my computer. Nobody had gone to reset the modem yet — I'd been watching — and I was on the verge of a meltdown. I finally realized how riled up I was, and determined to calm down. I quit Spotify and pulled up iTunes for some offline jams. It helped, a little.
But I still felt powerless. I stared at my computer, my headphones turned up, my music hiccup-free, and I did nothing but fume. At this point, I wasn't even able to conceive of what I could do on my computer, nay, on planet Earth, without a working Wi-Fi connection to the internet in this coffee shop.
I've dropped coffee shop loyalties for lesser internet offenses
I've dropped loyalties to coffee shops for lesser internet offenses. My productivity is contingent upon me leaving my house, and typically eating something, so a place with a decent breakfast sandwich and unburnt iced coffee can earn my patronage easily. But to keep me, you need to provide a solid broadband connection for a couple hours at a time — don't worry, I'll leave before the lunch rush and give you my precious table slot.
In my opinion, there are two basic tenets to building a stable Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, which should be obvious, but are rarely followed: have a dual-band router, and have it password protected with a password that changes every few days — daily if you can swing it. What happens in New York is that the 2.4Ghz spectrum is a nightmare of interference, and anybody in a walk-up apartment anywhere near the coffee shop has a decent shot at camping out on anything that's open or which has a predictable password.
This specific coffee shop had been on my blacklist before, during which time I'd slummed it with sub-par sandwiches and a longer walk in exchange for a little consistency, but now I was ready to give it up again, maybe for good. I imagined a life where I'd make my own coffee and sandwiches, and work from home. I shuddered. Maybe, I thought, I should change professions? Become a carpenter, work with my hands. Have you ever seen someone covered in wood shavings and freaking out because he can't load a YouTube cover version of "Call Me Maybe"?
Have you ever seen someone covered in wood shavings freaking out because he can't load a YouTube cover of "Call Me Maybe"?
I kept looking pointedly at the counter, and finally made eye contact. My request was recalled, and someone retreated upstairs to pull the plug on the finicky router. Listening to their steps, I began a countdown in my head of the process — how long it should take for the router to be alive again and dispensing IP addresses, and how long it would take my Mac to latch on to the refreshed signal.
When the network finally returned to my Mac's dropdown Wi-Fi selector, a thrill rushed through me. I selected the connection, felt every millesecond of lag as the computer made the handshake, and then I returned to my browser and started jamming on the address bar. Nothing. I went to my download, and it was still dead. IRC hadn't even reconnected. I was near tears.
"Is it working?" asked the resetter, now back at the counter.
"No, it's not," I said, preparing to gather my things and leave in a huff.
As a last ditch, I turned off my Wi-Fi, then turned it back on, for the tenth time that morning. And the GIF sprung to life.
"Oh wait, it is now!" I cried out.
And then I disappeared.
Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.