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Harper Reed Goes A Week Without Internet: Obama Campaign Tech Guru Shares What He Learned

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WASHINGTON -– After President Barack Obama won reelection, the press praised the techies who built the data-driven machine that helped the president's campaign break new ground in voter targeting and turnout.

Of all the geeks who got write-ups, the campaign's chief technology officer, Harper Reed, was the most eye-catching. In pictures (and even in a bizarre Bloomberg TV interview on the Vegas strip with Nascar cars roaring the background) he wore sweatshirts or T-shirts, his hair unkempt atop his head, big hoop rings in his ears, with his mustache -- at times -- twirled up on the ends, Rollie Fingers-style.

Reed, formerly the CTO of Threadless, a clothing company that crowd-sources its designs, once gave a talk at a tech conference titled, "How to Problem Solve a Problem Solving Team of Problem Solvers To Solve Your Problems." When the Obama campaign hired him in the spring of 2011, Fast Company called him an "uber-hipster and tech rebel."

On Dec. 16, I noticed a tweet from Reed:

I emailed Reed and asked if he would grant an interview after the week without Internet to give his thoughts on how it went. We ended up settling on an email exchange because it was easier during the busy holidays.

My interest was simple: I love technology, and yet it's also obvious that we are being overrun by it. As I put it in a 2011 book review, if you don't sometimes feel you are going nuts in this total information age: my congratulations, my condolences, and pass the Adderall.

Reed's ploy struck me as a worthwhile attempt to take control of his technology and to fight to become more human. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our back-and-forth about Reed's week without Internet.

Merry Christmas. A few questions re the no-Web week: Why did you decide to do it?

I was driving home from work about a week after election day and I was very frustrated. I had no real reason to be frustrated, but I was. I was explaining to my wife, Hiromi, what I was feeling and she said, "You need to go somewhere away from here and only read books."

I had talked about going on a reading vacation for quite a while. The campaign obviously had interrupted all plans to do something like that and so I started looking into going somewhere and reading.

Around this same time, I was basically going through information withdrawal. The information diet of a senior campaign staffer is insane. We were all addicted to our chosen email delivery devices and were aggressively tethered to them. It made sense and wasn't an issue during the campaign, because of the importance of the situation. However, once the campaign was over and we were successful, the information flow dried up. Instead of the 1,000-2,000 emails a day that were required reading, I was getting 10-50. My habits didn't change. I was still pulling out my mobile device and checking it with a frightening regularity.

It was obvious that I needed to do something to quell my information addiction.

I have a few friends (@mattcutts and @therealfitz) who talk about the need to take an email break. After listening to them talk about their experiences, I realized that my reading vacation needed to be a separation from information and the Internet.

I prepared as one would for a vacation. I set an auto-responder in my email (it said, "I am away. Call me if you need me," but didn't give my phone number). I tweeted that I would be away. I sent emails to people who may need to contact me (only three or four people). And then I turned everything off.

The key to making this successful was to limit my exposure to the Internet itself. To do so, I didn't bring a laptop or smartphone. I instead brought only three electronic things: a Kindle, an iPod with nice headphones and a John's phone.

Technically, the Kindle could connect to the Internet and I would be able to browse Twitter and my email. However, due to my security practices, I don't know the passwords for anything and was not able to log in.

It was awesome. I read The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi, Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 by Antony Beevor, Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson and a bundle of short stories.

I walked to the ocean. I hung out by myself at random restaurants and bars and read.

I did not check email or browse Twitter. It was beautiful.

What did you learn/take away/realize?

I am still understanding exactly how my time away will impact me. However, here are some takeaways:

  • Nature is awesome.
  • Taking time to do something slower than you normally would is a privilege that should not be ignored.
  • I was able to have very good phone conversations with some close friends and family.
  • I was able to focus on whatever was in front of me without distraction.
  • Clarity was achieved.

I learned that:

  • It isn't hard to let go of the Internet (especially if you are unable to log into things).
  • It will be OK if I am not connected.
  • If someone needs me, they will figure out a way to contact me.
  • Books are important.

A couple things that strike me when I talk or think about this experience:

  • The opportunity to step away from everything and take a break is something that shouldn't be squandered. I will not have another opportunity to do the same thing for a long while.
  • This opportunity is one of the utmost privileges accessible by us. There are a lot of people who are unable to take a break to clear their minds. I imagine they are the ones who need it the most.

Where did you go?

A resort near San Diego. It had good reviews, wasn't too expensive and was not near anyone or anything.

Did you intentionally set passwords, or have someone else set passwords, on your Kindle that you did not know, in order to prevent you from going on the Internet?

Not intentionally so I wouldn't have access. To make things more secure, I use two-factor [authorization] on my Gmail and a unique generated password that I don't know for my Twitter. This is my status quo. Without the key that holds my Twitter password or my smartphone to help with the two-factor auth, i was unable to check my email. Same goes for Facebook.

Did you journal or do any other form of writing or expression to try to mark down and catalogue what you were learning during your time of clarity?

Yep. I wrote on a notebook. It was mostly observations.

I like the thing about incessantly checking the smartphone. is there a norm you're trying to get to that you feel is healthy?

I don't know if there is a norm. I think it is per situation. For instance, on the campaign, it was important to be connected the way I was. For another company, it is probably less important.

Anything else I missed or didn't ask? any other thoughts?

http://www.johnsphones.com/ ;)

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