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Originally published December 29, 2009 at 9:10 PM | Page modified December 30, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Danny Westneat

Offline deserves a right on

An estimated 15 percent of Americans live life completely offline — no computer, no e-mail, no Internet account at the library, not even a cellphone.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Last week when I wrote a column about guns, some 700 readers sent an e-mail or posted a comment on our Web site arguing one side or the other.

One reader — and only one — took a different tack. Victor Koyano, 65, a Seattle man who spends most of his time taking care of his 98-year-old mom, wrote out a letter using a pen on paper. He sent it to me in the mail.

This happens less all the time. In my office mail slot, I used to get about one handcrafted letter a week. Now I get maybe one a month.

"We're an endangered species," Koyano laughed when I called him on the phone.

Koyano is one of the estimated 15 percent of Americans who live life completely offline — no computer, no e-mail, no Internet account at the library, not even a cellphone.

Another is Margaret Cole, who lives in Ethel, Lewis County, southwest of Mount Rainier. She sent me a nice letter not long ago, written in that flowing cursive they don't teach in schools anymore. It asked for updates on a few columns I'd written, and tucked inside was something I hadn't seen in years — a self-addressed stamped envelope.

"Oh, I thought I'd nudge you along so you'd write a reply," she said when, instead, I called her. "Didn't work, I see."

I told her I was sorry to be such a lousy correspondent. She said it was OK. But then she sighed.

"I'm not an Internet person. It's too much noise for me. I just don't need it."

Do we?

Most of us are all digital all the time now. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego recently estimated that Americans today take in more than quadruple the amount of information we did in 1980.

"The average American's information consumption of 34 gigabytes a day is the equivalent of about one-fifth of a notebook computer's hard drive," the study notes in a sentence that made me feel like my head's going to explode.

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The U.S. soaked up 20 times more information last year — watching TV, surfing the Web, playing video games, etc. — than could be stored on all the hard drives in the world. (For more information (!) about how they did this study, see, if you're online (!), this Web site: hmi.ucsd.edu/howmuchinfo.php.)

People are dishing out the bytes, too. On The Seattle Times Web site we now track reader response via our online commenting feature. Readers left a million comments this year on some 45,000 local and national stories at seattletimes.com.

That's more than 2,700 comments a day.

We had 115 readers who left more than 1,000 comments each. One Seattle sports nut with the handle "cbuckx2" earned the title of most communicative Seattle Times reader by posting more than 5,000 comments in 2009. In the old days that would have been equivalent to writing 14 letters to the editor. Every day.

That's a lot of talking going on. Is anybody listening?

Well, we are. As it says on our Web site, we put in the comment feature because we want to be the "town square for our community." We have read all million of the comments. Including all the ones calling me an illiterate moron who writes in incomplete sentences.

Seriously, the avalanche of feedback is good for the newspaper. If nothing else, it helps keep us open and accountable.

But what about everybody else? Are you giving and getting too much information?

I've noticed in our comment threads that some regulars post there so often that they've gotten to know each other, not by real name but by style and taste. It almost feels sociable, like a locker room.

On the other hand, a reader wrote to say that all this sharing perversely compartmentalizes us.

"I have this vague unease that the rise of the Internet and the resulting semi-anonymous interactions of people have made our collective ideas, opinions, fears and frustrations more difficult to address, as well as creating the flamer, the troll," he or she wrote, anonymously.

"It's normal to see one's own times as the best and worst of times, but the Internet and the nontraditional media have expanded that harmless narcissism into a 'by God, here I make my stand' fortress of good and evil."

The unplugged offliners — who supposedly are going extinct — now are worried about us.

Anne Conn is one of them. She doesn't own a computer and never goes on the Internet. She types five to 10 letters a week on a manual typewriter — including one to me a while back. Even the short time it takes her to load the paper is a "time to think" that has stopped her from flaming people.

She's 70 and goes to Gold's Gym on Aurora every day to stay in shape. There's not much human interaction there now — not the face-to-face kind, she says.

"Everyone's plugged into their devices. We're in the same room but we're also alone."

I don't know where we're going with all this. It does feel like it's building to a backlash. When I told an editor there were people who live entirely offline, she said: "What a relief!"

I agree. I'm off to join them, if only for a few days. I'll be back here for all your digital flames — or hand-penned notes — next week.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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