How does a modern family survive without the internet or telephone for 5 weeks?

I wasn’t going to write this piece, it felt like moaning about first world problems in the extreme and even in writing this I realise that it probably still is. But here’s the rub, as UWSITCH MAN so smugly says in that advert, what happened when we lost internet access in our home has been completely and utterly revealing – in good ways and bad. For a bit of background, you’ll need to understand a couple of things – I live in a small Cornish village that doesn’t get any kind of mobile signal (not even 1G never mind 4), I have a one year old son and three step-children aged eight to thirteen and I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Oh, and the reason we were without internet and phone? A cock up between BT and SSE left us virtually stranded as a family in a remote-ish location.

 Breaking the news to the kids was 75% devastating. The 1 year old just pointed and screamed as he does to pretty much everything that happens around him but the other three all reacted differently. The eldest behaved as though a beloved family pet had died, the youngest didn’t fully comprehend the full extent of the situation and the middle child forlornly tried each and every app on one of the two I pads to see if anything would still work without Wi-Fi. Nothing ‘good’ did. There were various acts of teenage frustration and vain attempts to offer suggestions – “can’t we just ring them up and tell them to switch it back on, or else?” being my favourite – but eventually a sense of resignation set in, they were facing  5 weeks without Wi-Fi or the phone. As mature, rational adults, my girlfriend and I were fine about this loss of connectivity, after all we grew up in an era when computers had rubber keys and phones were hardly ever cordless and only to be used if your dad said so. We would be absolutely fine.

The Upside

For the first few days there was reluctant acceptance but, credit where it’s due, the kids were all pretty mature about things and dusted off their various other forms of entertainment. The Wii got some attention and then board games and jigsaws were pulled out of the cupboard and, for a while, we felt like the kind of family that everyone wants to be until real life and modern society gets in the way. Argument levels dropped noticeably and imagination started to flourish – the eight year old even made a space rocket out of an empty milk bottle and electrical tape, complete with tiny passengers. Is this what Blue Peter was made from? Another gradual benefit was that the less time the older three spent on the I pads, the less energy our one year old spent trying to get hold of one proving the point that little ones will only follow what the older ones do.

From an adult perspective, we read more at bed time and, probably, slept better (as well as any parents with four kids sleep). We watched films that were more involved (i.e. less background noise and more quality movies) and made an effort to do all those little jobs around the house that only take 15 minutes but get bumped for watching that video on Facebook or scouring eBay for cheap furniture. We now have pictures that hang proudly and symmetrically on our walls rather than sitting in their frames, gathering dust on the floor. Hell, we even did a bit of gardening when the sun decided to make an appearance.

The Darkside

Now, initially the lack of connectivity was supposed to last three weeks and, to an extent, SSE kept to their word. Exactly three weeks in our phone line was restored but not router arrived so after sitting on hold for the traditional 20 minutes or so (seriously, ‘Unforgettable’ and ‘You’ve Got A Friend In Me’ are horrible, horrible choices for hold music) we discovered that we wouldn’t be reconnecting to the wider world for further two and a half weeks. This coincided, beautifully, with the start of the half term and, interestingly, kick started some slightly extreme reactions. The disappointment for the eldest on finding out that we would still be in limbo prompted the unexpected phrase of “I’m going to stab them through the heart for this!”. Now this kid has the usual levels of teenage hormones flying around but this was pretty ‘out there’ for him so we could tell things were getting tense. Even I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms now – there is a point during any power cut where the mood turns from romantic adventure to downright pain in the arse and that point had just been reached.

Among many other things banking had become a problem, paying bills had to wait and trying to organise anything remotely social involved going to the top of the house, typing out a message on your phone and then standing in ridiculous positions until a passing seagull bounced enough 3G in our direction. At one stage I had to drive to another house and ‘borrow’ some Wi-Fi without sounding like I was trying to borrow sugar in a flirty way just so I could activate a new credit card. As I said at the beginning, all of this sounds like problems hugely routed in the first world and they are but what is so terrifying is just how reliant we, as a family, had become on the internet. Our entertainment, finances, work, social lives, shopping and education were all tied in to the signal flying in though a box in the wall and then swarming around our house like invisible flying ants (only every day rather than once a year).

Special trips had to be made to download and complete the eldest’s homework and notes written to teachers to explain that we are currently luddites and as so couldn’t complete the task at hand. Old encyclopaedia’s were dusted off and laughed at for just how basic, out of date and non-interactive they are compared to the world wide web. Trying to choose a restaurant for an anniversary dinner came down to places we could remember the name of that we didn’t think would be booked up in advance. At one stage, I realised that I didn’t have up to date phone numbers for a large proportion of my friends so couldn’t actually text anyone as an alternative to other messaging services. So is Wi-Fi now a utility? If we run out of oil (no gas where we live) we have to put on an extra layer or borrow a heater from someone. If the water goes off then we can buy some from the shop for emergencies and when the electric dies, well, that’s what candles are for. But it’s hard to get a bottle of Wi-Fi from the local shop or spark up the wick of a wax router and given how essential connectivity is to modern life this presents a problem. A very modern, developed world problem, sure, but a problem nonetheless.

The Light Returns

As I write this we are still without Wi-Fi and an air of acceptance has descended on the house. Indoor hula-hooping has increased tenfold and that wire rack thing that we bought a year ago to hold all the bottles in the shower is finally up. I admit it, I’m looking forward to getting back online and back in touch with the world again but my partner have discussed the possibility of having an annual web purge so that we can keep our heads in the real world and remember how lucky we are to have grown up in an era when all automated and instant features of modern society weren’t so much the norm that they are today. Any coincidences with Lent are purely accidental (we are a purely secular household) as I know people who give up social media for this holy period every year then why not go one further and just turn your back on the virtual world for a few weeks – you might be surprised at what you’ll get done.

NB No animals or children were harmed in the writing of this article although many, many Sims and Clash of Clans characters have surely died miserable deaths but that’s OK because they don’t have feelings, right? Right!?!?

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