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Dropping off the grid

After screwing up his travel preparations, CNET's Charles Cooper goes through the electronic equivalent of cold turkey.

Packing for a recent hiking vacation, I forgot my cell phone. When I realized my goof, it was too late. I was 30,000 feet over California's Sierras and climbing.

Panic compounded my embarrassment after I discovered that any hope of connecting to the nearest wireless hot spot would be blocked by miles of impenetrable sandstone hills. So for the next week, I "dropped off the grid," going through what might best be described as the electronic equivalent of cold turkey.

Cut off without a tether to my usual cyberlife, here was Mr. Big Shot Tech Reporter, unable to tap into that matrix of instant messages, texting, e-mails, and Web news that has so defined my daily routine for the last decade. Did someone new "friend me" on Facebook? What about my weekly Travelocity updates on flights to São Paulo? And if I wasn't able to bitch in case Knicks GM Isiah Thomas pulled off another boneheaded trade, I'd feel cheated beyond belief.

Now I was going to have to play Davy Crockett for the next week in the mountains of Utah without anything more high-tech than a cheap plastic flashlight.

So much for that master plan. Now I was going to have to play Davy Crockett for the next week in the mountains of Utah without anything more high-tech than a cheap plastic flashlight. I wasn't in any danger--you ever see a laptop dissuade a hungry bear?--but I felt, well, like an addict without his regular fix.

Of course, this is so 2007. None of this would have flummoxed my parents' generation. They talked in person to each other and dialed the phone when they needed to communicate. Or wrote letters. The kind you dropped in a blue metal mailbox. Quaint, but effective.

Maybe that's a red-herring comparison. That generation has passed the baton and, for better or worse, the grid has become the indispensable nexus for communications and commerce in the 21st century. So much so that you can't easily appreciate how hooked in we all are until--poof!--one day you're not.

Less than a full-bandwidth connection to the outside becomes irritating. If you want to turn a pack of journalists into instant grumps, watch what happens when a conference organizer fails to provide dependable Wi-Fi connections for events.

Are there advantages to occasionally dropping off now and then? I can think up a few, not the least being able to reconnect with the way we once were. Consider how nice it once was not to have to endure self-centered blowhards yammering into their cell phones at top decibel levels. Then again, you weren't able to call for help or look up your location via GPS because those technologies didn't exist.

That's the 21st century trade-off, and we haven't been left with much choice in the matter. Of course, you could go the Ted Kaczynski route--not become a "Unabomber," of course, but rather disconnect and decide to refuse the invitation of modernity and all that comes with it. My hunch is that few of you would choose that path for you or your children.

Logging on after my return to the "real world," I'm back to checking e-mail, voice mail, and IM around the clock. But I still miss the uninterrupted silence of fall meadows and dun-colored hills. Maybe next time, I'll "forget" my high-tech toys on purpose.