Never Alone: Getting 'off the grid' isn't easy to do
2009-09-08 0:00

By Leonard Pitts Jr. | McClatchy

Back in May, I flew to Los Angeles. My cellphone did not.

I left it in the car, a fact I only discovered as I was lining up at security.

Had I found myself standing there in my underdrawers, I don't think I'd have felt more naked. There was this panicky sense of isolation, this disconcerting feeling of being cut off. Whenever I confessed my plight, I got looks of stark pity like you'd give someone with a terminal disease.

It was a very long five days.

So I read with great interest an article in the September issue of Wired magazine. Gone by Evan Ratliff is about people who, for various reasons, tried to go off the grid, to disappear without a trace. Ratliff's piece suggests that, in a world where we are ever more interconnected, where your whereabouts can be traced by everything from the GPS in your cellphone to the magnetic stripe on your grocery card, to the camera mounted over the ATM, a world where you can be ratted out by your e-mail account, your favorite e-merchant, your social networking site, your subway card or the sticker on your car that lets you zip through the toll plaza, it has become nearly impossible to simply vanish.

To test the thesis, Wired has embarked on an inspired stunt. Ratliff himself disappeared on Aug. 15. He's trying to stay lost for 30 days. If some reader, using clues provided by Wired, can find him within that time, he or she wins $5,000. Me, I'm rooting for the writer, not the readers.

That's not just professional solidarity speaking. Rather, it's a desire to know that what he seeks to do can still be done, that, short of moving into a cave and living off the land, it is still possible to disconnect from the world.

Those of us of a certain age will remember how The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble, would arrive in some town seeking menial work to sustain him in his search for the one-armed man. He'd adopt a fake name and live in safe, albeit paranoid, anonymity for weeks until some malicious snoop or suspicious sheriff happened upon his wanted poster. Even when he was arrested and fingerprinted, it would be long hours before he could be positively ID'd, giving him time to make his escape.

All of which feels as primitive as kerosene lamps. Kimble wouldn't last a week in 2009. If they can't find you these days, you're either a genius, a hermit or they aren't looking very hard.

The world is so much with us now, an intrusive presence anonymity cannot abide. Our predilections are catalogued, our travel monitored, our faces watched, our purchases logged.

In exchange for convenience, we lose the ability to simply pull the plug and be.

Worse, if my experience with the cell phone is any indication (I suspect it is) we have been re-socialized in such a way that pulling the plug and simply being has come to feel distinctly unnatural. Cellphones have been ubiquitous for . . . what? Ten years? We've been living online maybe five years more.

In an amazingly short time, then, technology has utterly rewired our sense of what it means to be in touch.

Or am I the only one who feels as if he's in a sensory deprivation tank when he's trapped somewhere without Net access? Am I the only one who finds it hard to remember the days when you'd follow a road just to see where it went and nobody knew where you were, nobody could reach you and that was fine?

I'd love to be able to tell you I spent those cell-less days rediscovering the joys of disconnection and that when I got it back, I found I no longer needed the thing quite as much. But that would be a lie. When I got it back, my hands fairly trembled in relief.

Obviously, I am a lost cause. So yes, I am rooting for the writer. Assuming and hoping he hasn't been busted by the time you read this, I leave him the same sage advice Jenny once gave Forrest.

Run, Evan, run!

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