I’ve just loaded a website that won’t let me in. And that’s not because I haven’t purchased a subscription or created a login. The website won’t let me in specifically because I’m connected to the web. It’s an almost nonsensical paradox, right?
That is, until I turn off my computer’s Wi-Fi, and the screen magically changes. I’m greeted with an online literary magazine called The Disconnect. Amazingly, I can somehow still tap all of its links in the table of contents to read lovingly written long-form essays and fiction. Yet my ever-present Twitter feed, Slack chatroom, and Gmail tab have gone dark. For the first time in a long time, it’s just me and the words.
“I had someone say, ‘It felt like this page had always been on my computer. How is this happening?'” recounts Chris Bolin, the computer engineer and designer behind The Disconnect. The MIT-trained Bolin consults and develops websites and apps for his day job. But he’s always had an interest in art and literature, so he teamed up with editor Clayton d’Arnault to launch the publication.
In fact, it was happening simply by design. The Disconnect gathers information from your browser–just like any other website does–so it can see that you are running Chrome on Mac OS. To further ensure the Wi-Fi off, his server slyly pings your browser with bits of information to see if it responds. Finally, the entire issue is optimized to be extraordinarily small. At 200Kb, it’s downloaded in milliseconds without you noticing, as it’s tinier than the poster image alone on most news sites. Once downloaded, it’s cached inside your browser, like its own mini app that doesn’t need the internet to run.
Nothing Bolin did on the technical end was extraordinary or complicated, but the sensation of reading long-form journalism with no other distractions–on your computer or smartphone no less!–feels like a shocking revelation.
“I think we have this privilege of constant connection, but we’re not thinking outside that framework very often,” says Bolin. What he is proposing isn’t that we go cold turkey with technology, but that we reshape the internet to better accommodate our attention spans. “You go on vacation and hike, and now you’re in that disconnect Walden Pond world. But we’re not thinking much about, ‘How do we take a little bit of column A and a little of column B?'”
How do we receive the wonders of digital media while maintaining a peaceful, focused mind that can actually enjoy it?
“Is there a way to rethink how we’ve built some of the web?” Bolin continues. “I think the web has not been built for humans but for perfect humans. One of the greatest examples is the hyperlink. If I were a superhuman, or a computer, I’d know whether I should follow this link or not. But we feeble humans don’t know this. We hover over a link, and we accidentally click, or we open in another tab because maybe it’s more interesting than what we’re looking at now. The nature of the unknown, the thrill of the hunt, is always going to be overwhelmingly attractive. I wanted to remove that and ask, ‘How can we do that in a more human way.'”
In the case of The Disconnect, Bolin is exploring this idea through what he calls “hybrid media.” It’s media that isn’t just a piece of content you download to consume, but a piece of content that plays by its own rules intrinsically. It demands fair play.
Could something like The Disconnect scale beyond art project to impact the way publications, and even websites at large, are designed? Could we rebuild the web as a series of singular, on-demand experiences that respect users, as opposed to the addictive, scroll-scroll-click-click spectacle it is today? Perhaps, but it’s hard not to ruin something like The Disconnect with modern online business plans. For instance, The Disconnect isn’t tracking how long users are reading it offline. It has no idea of its own engagement, the metric that allows platforms ranging from Fast Company to Facebook to survive. It’s also not feeding ads, or profiling you to feed you ads, either. But then again, The Disconnect is a side project that doesn’t need to make money, so Bolin has time to learn and experiment.
“It’s an interesting world, being offline. I can’t just plop in Google Analytics,” says Bolin. “I have some ideas on how we can rethink how we gather metrics. I also feel conflicted about this, because I think asking someone to go offline creates a unique and special place on the web, and I don’t want to exploit that too much. I want to be careful with that.”
Indeed, The Disconnect is amazing for everything it isn’t. It isn’t listening through your microphone. It isn’t selling you shoes. It isn’t pointing to a chum pile of other stories at the bottom of the page. It isn’t tracking your location. It isn’t pressuring you to share. It isn’t keeping you refreshing. It isn’t taking a piece of your identity as you leave.
Who wouldn’t want that version of the internet? You know, a version where the internet stopped feeling so much like the internet, and it felt more like your favorite old paper magazine, to be enjoyed at your leisure, instead?