Turn off, throw out, get online

How I got rid of my TV set, replaced it with an Internet connection - and changed my life.
It flickers in the corner of living rooms throughout the world - informing, entertaining, instructing and comforting. Newspapers and magazines devote hundreds of pages to telling us what's on it, and people plan their daily schedules around it for fear of missing something. But, for the past 16 months, I've lived without it.

My television-free lifestyle has raised more than a few eyebrows amongst friends and colleagues. Reactions range from surprise and scepticism to doubt and pity. How can anyone not have a television? That's ridiculous! How do you know what's going on? What do you do in the evenings? You're weird!

Their opinions change little when told that the television has been replaced with a PC and a connection to the Internet. Instead of evenings watching The Bill solve yet another crime or chuckling at Angus Deayton as he smoothly delivers one more double entendre, I've been wandering through Web sites and communicating with people around the planet.

But why such a drastic step? As with many things in life, the decision to ditch the box was taken on the spur of the moment. In January 1995 the little brown envelope containing the television licence bill dropped through the letterbox. I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't believe there was pounds 90-odd-worth of television worth watching in a year when the fateful words were uttered by my partner: "Well, why don't we get rid of it then?"

The sentence hung in the air as I grappled with the concept of a TV-free household. "Get rid of it? Mmm, interesting idea," I replied. I was in a corner as it had been me doing the complaining, so I pondered all the things that could fill the empty hours about to be created in my life. I had been reading a bit about the Internet and how it was destined to become the information medium of the future. Perhaps now was the time to try it out.

"OK," I said. "Why don't we replace the TV with an Internet connection?" It has to be said my partner was a little more sceptical about joining the growing online world, but my enthusiastic description finally convinced her. So it was decided - out with the TV and remote and in with the PC and modem.

I don't deny that the first few weeks were tough. I'd find myself reading through the television guide on the way home from work, just to see what I was missing. I'd loiter in the coffee room listening in on conversations about a particularly gripping episode of the X Files. But, gradually, the pain of not having television subsided.

At the same time, my enjoyment of the Internet was increasing. From a knowledge base of almost zero I soon was taking my first tentative steps. After the initial frustrations of configuring the software to talk to the modem, the first couple of weeks were spent exploring sites I'd read about in papers and magazines. Periods of silence and quiet tapping were interspersed with: "Wow, I've got through to the White House," and "Hey, did you know showers are forecast for Istanbul today?"

Occasionally my partner would stand behind me as I toured the globe, initially showing interest but soon wandering off to pick up a book. "I don't think TV's got a lot to worry about," she said. But my interest was growing - I was determined to prove her wrong.

The beauty of the Internet is that it provides access to information on any subject imaginable. But this diversity can also be a disadvantage. Where do you start? How do you find what's interesting to you? As someone once commented, it's a little like trying to take a drink from a fire hydrant. Then, in about week three, I discovered the power of search engines. Television faded further from my memory.

The concept behind search engines is simple - enter a subject, name or key words and the engine will search the Internet for references, providing you with a list of possible sites to explore. Armed with this sort of help, the mass of information suddenly seems more ordered and you are able to select what you want with ease - the fire hydrant has been replaced by a drinking fountain.

Now nights could be spent exploring any subject that took my fancy. If I had a thirst for news, wire services such as Reuters and Press Association offered stories and photographs from around the world, as do a wide selection of magazines. If it was entertainment, I soon found a long list of sites offering everything from games to online tours of virtual environments. Even TV's diet of advertising could be replaced by visiting some of the more Web-conscious consumer goods companies.

However my partner remained unconvinced. The slow speed of the Web, particularly when downloading pages laden with graphics, made her eyes glaze over. It was then that I discovered forums.

Forums are areas set up on the Internet to enable people with similar interests to share ideas, experiences and knowledge. Some allow the posting of messages which then form an ongoing conversation. Others allow members to "chat" in real time. My partner was planning a diving holiday with a friend, so I mentioned there was a Scuba forum that might be worth a look. Unconvinced, she entered the forum and joined a live chat room. Two hours later she was still there, deep in conversation with two Germans and an Italian about the best dive spots on the Great Barrier Reef. "You know, this Internet thing is not so bad," she declared.

Our household has now been 16 months sans television, and I can honestly say that I don't miss it at all. I can't join conversations about the latest rerun of Absolutely Fabulous, the entire trial of OJ Simpson passed me by, and my lack of knowledge of any soap opera you care to mention almost makes me a social outcast. But I don't care. The online world isn't perfect, it's sometimes slow and often frustrating, but, given time and a little creativity, it can be infinitely more satisfying than television could ever hope to be. My TV set's staying at the back of the closet.