Into the wild and back again

Ryo Chijiiwa, a software engineer who left it all behind, shares the benefits of off-the-grid living.

The psychological wear and tear of office life leads many to fantasize about leaving it all behind. Ryo Chijiiwa (@ryochiji) knows this feeling well, but unlike most people he actually did something about it. In 2009, Chijiiwa quit his job at Google, packed up and moved off the grid.

In the following interview, Chijiiwa, who will speak in-depth about his experiences at OSCON, talks about how solitude and nature have shaped his perspective.


What possessed you to do an about-face from working for high-profile tech companies and ditch the grid?

RyoChijiiwa.jpgRyo Chijiiwa: Part of it was that I was simply burnt out. I had spent the better part of 10 years either studying computer science in college or working as a professional software engineer (or both), and I suddenly decided I wanted to experience life outside the cubicle. Living in the woods was a childhood dream of mine, and it seemed like a good time to realize that dream.

But, the other part was that I started to see some fundamental issues with the way the industry and our society are structured. At a personal level, I realized that striving for success and accomplishment didn’t bring me any closer to happiness. And at a societal level, it occurred to me that a system predicated on infinite growth simply was not sustainable. So, I decided to step back, slow down, and rethink my life and my priorities.

Can you describe a typical day in the wilderness?

Ryo Chijiiwa: There’s really no “typical” day in the wilderness. For a long time, there was actually a fair amount of work to do because I was trying to turn a patch of completely undeveloped land into something habitable. I built my cabin mostly on my own, and that alone took several months. The work that needs to happen also varies depending on the season. In the spring, I might be tending to the garden, or clearing brush to lower the risks of a forest fire. In the autumn, I might spend a lot of time gathering firewood. I also dedicate a fair chunk of time to cooking because food is important. There’s also ample time for reading, writing, reflection and contemplation, too, which is one of the benefits of a slower lifestyle. Of course, if I can’t find anything better to do, I can always step out of my cabin and go wander the woods.

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As far as communications go, I was completely cut off for a while. I had an iPhone, but AT&T had absolutely no coverage on my property, and I actually enjoyed being disconnected. There’s a certain peace of mind you can get only by switching off completely. I eventually found out that Verizon had coverage, so I got a feature phone on a pre-paid plan for emergencies and for those few occasions when I needed access to the outside world.

After much deliberation, I got a MiFi earlier this year so I could go online, though I can’t say getting “wired” was unequivocally better for my quality of life. With Internet access, I spend more time and electricity on my laptop, uselessly browsing the web when I could be doing something else. I think this is a common problem people have these days, but the shift that happened when I suddenly got Internet access really made it noticeable.

Electricity is another constraint. This past winter, when sunlight was scarce and my solar panels were covered in snow, I once had to tell my mom, who lives in Japan, that I couldn’t Skype with her unless the sun shined. While the lack of power was something of an inconvenience, it was also reassuring to know that I could have power as long as the sun shines, which isn’t something you can say when you’re dependent on the grid and the power goes out.

What has solitude taught you?

Ryo Chijiiwa's Hut 1.0
Ryo Chijiiwa’s Hut 1.0. He’s currently working on Hut 2.1.

Ryo Chijiiwa: I’ve learned a ton. I’ve learned some carpentry and architecture from designing and building my own cabin. I’ve also learned a lot about off-grid electricity, about the importance of water, gardening, wildlife, and self-reliance, to name a few things. But the fact that I gained knowledge and skills is hardly surprising.

What I think made this experience uniquely valuable for me, though, is that I’ve learned so much about myself. In many ancient cultures, venturing out into the wilderness alone was a rite of passage, a necessary step toward adulthood. In our society, on the other hand, isolation is feared and even stigmatized. Yet, there’s a lot about yourself that you can learn only through isolation and solitude. Sometimes, you can’t hear yourself unless you put yourself in an environment where there’s nobody else — no parents, no bosses, no peers. And knowing who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, and knowing what’s really important to me is invaluable because the truly difficult decisions in life can only be solved if you know who you are.

Do you expect to bring that new knowledge back into the grid at some point?

Ryo Chijiiwa: Absolutely. I’ve been a fan of the open source model for a long time now, and I think a big part of it has to do with my desire to share and contribute things, whether it’s code or knowledge. My entire journey, since the day I left Google, has been chronicled in my blog, Laptop and a Rifle, where I tried to make the whole experience pretty transparent. I’m also working on a book that’s filled with practical knowledge, which will hopefully be published as an ebook sometime later this year.

What are the benefits of alternative lifestyles? What do they allow people to do?

Ryo Chijiiwa: Alternative lifestyles can have a number of advantages. The major one, I think, is that it helps us strike a better work-life balance. For example, I don’t have to choose between working and living in a cabin in the woods because I can do both! One doesn’t necessarily have to choose between working and traveling — you can do both! At the very least, there’s so much more you can do when you’re not spending 60 hours at the office.

I think there are some benefits to society at large, too. Living in a 120-square-foot cabin in the woods and living purely off of solar energy probably helped me reduce my carbon footprint. After the March 11 earthquake in Japan, I was able to jet off and volunteer in the tsunami disaster area for two months, which would have been difficult to pull off if I had been tethered to a job and a mortgage. Also, by sharing what I’ve learned, I’m hoping that that information will help others realize their own dreams, and live healthier, happier, and more sustainable lives.

Do you believe it’s possible to find balance between always on and completely off?

Ryo Chijiiwa: It’s very, very difficult. When I’m in my cabin, I’ve accomplished something of a middle ground, simply because I have a limited supply of electricity and my MiFi account has a 3GB per month data limit. The trend is clearly going in the other direction. Everything is going into the cloud, which means you’ll need an “always on” connection to have access to not just your email and social life, but your photos, favorite TV shows and your music.

Living in the woods, and going from being completely disconnected to being mostly connected, made me realize how difficult it actually is to incorporate technologies into our lives in a healthy way. The pace of technological change is so blindingly fast that we’re doing a poor job of adapting, not just at an individual level, but even as a society and as a species.

The environmental impact of technological changes that started two centuries ago only became apparent a few decades ago. It concerns me somewhat to think about how, two centuries from now, our descendants will look back on today’s technologies and the impacts they have on people, societies and our environment. There will likely be unforeseen consequences, some of which may prove to be undesirable. Unfortunately, only time will tell.

This interview was edited and condensed.

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