Stanley Bing

Off the grid

We all seem to want to get away from civilization. I hear about that all the time, and not just out here where the trains have never run, says Fortune's Stanley Bing. So why are we so happy to get back?

By Stanley Bing

(Fortune Magazine) -- I'm standing on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The surf is tremendous. In a field to my right, horses are grazing, munching on grass they pull up a clump at a time. A pleasant, ripping sound of roots being torn from the turf is audible under the crash of the waves as they leap up in curls of spume from the black rocks of the beach.

I am off the grid. This is a phrase I have heard only recently, possibly because it is new, possibly because I am no longer so new and hear things later than I used to. Off the grid. It has a nice feel to it. I get a picture in my mind: A huge, multilayered matrix, populated by millions of teeming souls, working. They are dressed in way too much clothing. On their feet are shoes with many laces. Their belts are cinched tight. So are the things they wear about their necks. Each soul is bent to its labor. Each is linked to the others by digital lines of communication that hold the grid together.

I take in a lungful of air. There is no grid here on the edge of civilization, except ... to my right, at some distance, a fellow appears to be talking to himself. This is not so unusual, off the grid. I saw a guy yesterday on the street in conversation with an imaginary interlocutor, shirt torn, pants just about around his ankles. That far off the grid we may not want to be. But this man is different, I now see, for in his ear a bulbous Bluetooth pod feeds his auricular canal. "No," I hear him say. "I'll have to call you back on that later." He looks aggravated.

Even here, then, there is grid. It's not very easy to get off. Just this morning, as I awoke to the sounds of whippoorwills, I was pleased to see that my BlackBerry had 28 messages on it. I even replied to a few that called for a little something. Too much grid? Maybe. But I was able to have my coffee knowing that the grid was okay with me, that I had touched it just enough to feel safe letting it go for the next eight hours or so.

We want to be off the grid. I see and hear about that all the time, and not just out here where the trains have never run. The yearning expresses itself in strange ways sometimes. In an obsession with golf. In too many drinks after a day of grid. In the boat my friend Tom is building, which may never be finished but takes his mind someplace the grid can't follow. In the collection of fountain pens my pal Jablonsky has been assembling for the past 20 years, a hoard so huge he had to build an extra room off his den to house it. In the vacation homes that call to us from the magazines we read. "My husband Larry and I were just floored by the beauty and charm of Hamahama h'oilani!" an ad reads. Concierge living! But how far is that from the grid, really?

And how much do we actually want to be off the grid, off the griddle? I see people like us here, trying to enjoy themselves in non-gridlike activities. Over dinner, couples stare at each other as if they're having trouble finding things to talk about, because being off the grid means avoiding grid-related discussion. What remains? Movies? Weather? Kids? Are they grid or non-grid? Last night I saw a woman checking her cellphone at the table while her husband went off to the restroom to have a peek at his BlackBerry. That's kind of ugly, people hanging on to the grid by one finger, afraid to fall into the emptiness beneath.

There's no question, though, that the space under the grid can be terrifying. For example, they distribute digests of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal here. Is that necessary for anybody who sincerely wants to be off-grid?

And what of those who actually jump off? You see them selling coffee beans in little cafés that feature homemade banana bread, or shopping for organic bean paste at markets whose bulletin boards are swathed in flyers advertising shiatsu massage and personal empowerment. Those little feuilletons trouble me. Don't they construct an alternative but still potent grid of their own? Is the goal to hop from one grid, gray and metallic, to another, green and with perfect feng shui, but a grid nonetheless?

Tomorrow I will be back on the grid. I will pass through the terrifying portal that is the contemporary airport, and boom, I'll be there. For a while my head will be back here, wrapped in the cosmic void that dwarfs the puny little lattices we construct to fill our days and make sense of ourselves. Then there will be a meeting, or a crisis, or some situation that needs my active intercession and ...

Ah, who am I kidding? It will be great to be home.

Stanley Bing's new book, Crazy Bosses (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at Top of page

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