The Current

This guy swore off the internet for all of 2020. Then the pandemic hit

Many people might consider things like Zoom calls and Facetiming a lifeline to help us keep connecting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Aron Rosenberg did the opposite, swearing off all internet usage for the 2020 calendar year.

Aron Rosenberg wanted to raise awareness of poor working conditions involved in making many devices

A man sits at a computer keyboard.
Aron Rosenberg swore off all internet usage for 2020. He plans to make his return with a livestream on Jan. 1. (OsherL/Twitter)

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While many people might consider things like Zoom calls and Facetiming a lifeline to help us keep connecting during the COVID-19 pandemic, Aron Rosenberg did the opposite, swearing off all internet usage for the 2020 calendar year.

"I remember last December around this time, I was pretty stressed about going offline. And I think I am more stressed now about the potential of going back online," Rosenberg, a PhD student at McGill University in Montreal, told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

He says he wanted to go offline for a year to raise awareness, in part, of the negative effects that the tech industry has on many communities.

The mining of elements like cobalt and coltan used in smartphones, for example, has been linked to conflicts and human rights abuses. And stories over the years have chronicled poor working conditions for the people on the smartphone assembly lines.

Miners are seen at the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals, in Inner Mongolia, China, on July 16, 2011. Most of a smartphone's carbon footprint comes from production, partly due to the mining of the metals inside. (Reuters)

Rosenberg says it's important that people are aware of what goes into making the devices, from a handheld phone to a large personal computer, that people rely on every day for their work and leisure.

"I'm totally in favour of using the internet and all sorts of the amazing ways that it has potential to be used. I just think we need to be a bit more critical or conscious of the way that these devices do have impacts beyond our own immediate experience," he said.

For his experiment, that meant an even stricter digital asceticism than one might assume. No emails. No binging television or movies on Netflix or Disney+. And perhaps most crucially, no video calls with friends and family.

Instead of a smartphone, he uses a classic candy-bar style Nokia phone, and communicates only with SMS text messages, rather than web-based platforms like WhatsApp.

Rosenberg went even so far as to ban himself from asking other people to look up anything online for him, or even stealing glances from nearby people's screens.

A person plays the game Snakeon the new Nokia 3310 model, similar to the one Rosenberg used for his low-tech year, on the first day of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Feb. 27, 2017. (Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images)

Offline during the pandemic

Rosenberg says he got "a few concerned phone calls" from family members concerned about his project when the global pandemic changed everyone's lives in March.

But he says rather than discourage him, it helped him to think more about how much people rely on the internet to connect with people and simply function in our society — and why it might be better to think of other alternatives.

Throughout the year, Rosenberg says he's learned about new — and old — ways to go about his life that made him rethink just how necessary the internet is after all.

Instead of emails, he's sent over 3,500 letters to more than 250 contacts.

As for entertainment, streaming services need not call; he said he has "enough DVDs and VHS [tapes] to last more than a year."

Once on a road trip with his partner to visit Toronto — in the lull between Ontario's first and second lockdowns — they used paper maps to find their way.

"[It] maybe sounds naive, but I guess we've become so used to using digital alternatives that … I realized, this year, certain things were actually very convenient without these online options," he said.

Unplugging to connect

But when it came to his PhD studies at McGill, things got more complicated. With the registrar's office closed to visitors, he had no choice but to ask a friend to login online for him to maintain his status as a student.

"I got in touch with the registrar and he was very supportive and apologetic, but he just said there's no way that I can do this for you from home," he said.

Even this seeming lapse, however, reinforced the lesson that human connection can be meaningful regardless of the tools we use in the process.

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"I realized that part of the lesson of this year has been how important it is to rely on people and how … when we're using the internet, we're relying on all sorts of people that we don't see," he said.

"I've tried to nurture those interdependent relationships because … online or off, it's the way that the world is working."

Rosenberg hopes to have some fun with his return to the net. He plans to host a short livestream for friends and followers on his Twitter account on Jan. 1, at 3 p.m. ET.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Cameron Perrier.