James Lileks

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If there’s an annual competition for the most out-of-touch, tone-deaf, opening sentence in newspapers this week, I think I’m a shoo-in: I would like to complain about the speed of internet on cruise ships.

Stay with me. Don’t head for the lifeboats. (They smell.) I’ve an important life lesson you learn only on enormous floating ships awash in alcohol and Purell: You can live without the internet.

How? Let me tell you a tale.

Anyone who’s been on a cruise ship has probably tried to get internet, and found it … slow. Watching the simplest of pages load is like watching the pyramids being constructed by birds dropping random grains of sand.

To be fair, the shipboard instructions warn you about this. The manual says something like:

INTERNET. You may buy a package of 120 minutes for the amount of money earned monthly by the dining room attendant whose sole job consists of putting the napkin on your lap. He has a name, as well as hopes and dreams you will never know, and he hails from a Malaysian village where electricity is sporadic.

By all means, complain loudly about your internet problems while he unfurls the thick napkin you use to wipe away the juice of your succulent meal. (Some days, he studies the back of your fat necks and … feels the sharp tines of the fork in his pocket, wondering whether it would be worth it.)

Your speed may vary, as the internet is different at sea. Instead of fiber-optic networks whisking bytes at the speed of light, the internet at sea consists of a man on the bridge who relays your requests by speaking binary code into a microphone, which is then sent up to a satellite orbiting Jupiter, where an onboard computer translates the numbers into a web address, and then loses the connection entirely.

In the event that the ship is abandoned, you will be required to purchase a separate internet package from the lifeboat captain.

In other words, buying internet is no guarantee you will get internet.

The hours before the ship leaves port you still have a signal from the shore, and so I was downloading as much as I could, like someone watering the camels before setting off across the desert.

Then a thought occurred to me, and it’s going to sound daft. You might think the long days at sea had taken away my reason and left me open to any sort of nonsense. But I’m serious.

The thought: What if I don’t actually need to go on the internet?

I know! Bizarre! Where did that come from? I got out my phone and googled “what if I don’t need the internet” to see if this was a troublesome symptom, and then realized: Oh, right.

Here are the things that happen.

1. Twitter is the first to go. What seemed like a constant stream of invaluable discussion is now a fading recollection of sitting in a sauna full of bees. Seemed fun at the time, for some reason, but now? Meh.

When you leave Twitter, you aren’t as angry at as many strangers as you used to be. Not personally angry, but annoyed by something they said or did. All of those irritating strangers, incorporeal in the whirlwind of Twitter and Facebook, are suddenly stilled, and you can concentrate on being angry at real strangers in the buffet line who are staring at the roast beef as though they expect it to sit up and describe how good it tastes. It’s roast beef on a cruise ship. If you don’t like it, you can ask them to braise you a parrot, for heaven’s sake, just MOVE.

2. Current events seem less important. It’s quite liberating. Just as you no longer stab your phone to see who said what, you no longer feel compelled to troll the news sites on a regular basis. Someone at dinner asks you what’s new on CNN.com, you shrug: wouldn’t know. You paid $3 today to look at a blank page that said “CNN” and nothing more.

You can always watch the news on your stateroom TV, but that always makes you feel like an astronaut getting tapes of the news from Earth. The bridge camera is more interesting, especially if the captain has announced you’re near the location where the Titanic was lost. You see enormous white chunks in the distance! Oh, wait. They’re just German tourists at the pool.

3. Texting to family? Maybe you get through once a day, and you feel as if you smuggled out a note on toilet paper by bribing a guard. But replies take time. Once I texted Daughter, and she started typing back immediately. I was so startled I turned around to see if she was behind me.

4. E-mail takes years to load, so you don’t bother. It can wait. And if the ship sinks, who’ll care? No one on the Titanic watching the last lifeboat pull away threw a packet of letters and shouted “Post these, please!” at the people rowing off to safety.

In short, it’s a good thing, being deprived of the internet. I intend to write a book about it on my next cruise.

Look for it on Amazon.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks