Going (partway) off the grid

It’s altogether too easy to let myself become addicted to the convenience of technology, but I recently stepped back a bit from that convenience.
I withdrew enough cash from the ATM at the end of December to cover my grocery shopping, gas and New Year’s weekend expenses. I paid cash at the grocery store, and for the first time in several years I paid cash for gas. It seemed odd to take money to the gas station cashier rather than insert my debit card outside. That shows how easily I had adapted to electronic payments.
For two decades I have bought strings and other accessories for my mandolins, dulcimers and guitars from a company called Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Mich. When I first received them, the Elderly catalogs were printed on newsprint and included a pull-out order form and envelope. Now the catalogs are on glossy paper, and the order form is on the inside of the back cover. No envelope is included. The only way I can order by mail is to copy the form because using the back page of the catalog ruins the catalog and deprives me of a form for future orders, and I must use my own envelope, which doesn’t bother me. The alternative is to order by e-mail, which I’ve done lately.
Ordering online from Elderly annoys me because searches through the company’s extensive inventory are time-consuming and often circuitous. Last time I ordered, I found items in the catalog, listed them on scratch paper and entered the numbers online. I could have filled out a paper order form in the time I spent doing all that, so from now on I will.
One of the so-called benefits of ordering online is the “save paper and a stamp” argument. But ordering off-line avoids the possibility of identify theft, and using stamps supports the Postal Service. It’s also easier and faster for a person with no Internet service.
Another way I stay out of the online loop is by not taking online surveys. It seems that nearly every store entices the buyer to take its online survey and in the process be enrolled in a drawing for a fabulous prize. That’s just a gimmick to get your e-mail address so they can hound you with special offers. The only e-mail address I have is my work address — I happily gave up home Internet service when our local provider closed — and I’m not interested in clogging my work e-mail with business promotions. For me, 20 new e-mails in one day is a lot.
Ordering off-line and paying in cash prevents tracking of my buying habits and locations. It gives me the creeps that every computer search and purchase can be monitored. Even if it’s done only to try to sell me more of what I just bought or to sell me related items, it bothers me. My spending habits are my business. What bothers me more is that using my debit card can allow some nameless eye in the sky to track my moves throughout the day. But if I use cash, the only move they can track is the bank withdrawal. Checks are registered electronically, so they’re no better in protecting my privacy. Maybe it’s just paranoia, but I feel like Will Smith in “Enemy of the State.” I’m being tracked and monitored. It’s bad enough that cameras watch me everywhere I go; I don’t need to increase the amount of monitoring. Also, use of debit cards can allow thieves access to your account. Thieves stake themselves out with binoculars to read your PIN, and recently I read that they install card-readers in ATMs.
So my resolution for 2011, alongside my usual pledge to continue to eat better and get more exercise, is to use cash as much as possible. Last year’s resolution was to use reusable grocery bags, and I finally achieved that goal several months into the year after many shopping trips forgetting the bags in the trunk. As much as possible I’m going off the grid. I’m not enamored of every latest technological gimmick, and a little inconvenience is worth the privacy and security it affords. Technology has its good points, but it has a bad side too, and it’s my goal to limit the amount of technology in my life.

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