“The internet is where people are”: Paul Miller is back after a year without the Internet

paul miller

“I was wrong.”

Thus begins Paul Miller’s fascinating article for The Verge about his one-year hiatus from the Internet. What was he wrong about?

It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.

And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.

And that’s not how it turned out for him. Why did he want to start this fast from the Internet in the first place?

In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.

I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I’d used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I’d gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.

And at first things went really well:

At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.

[…]

And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.

Among improvements in his health, relationships, and social skills in general, he also said his attention span for reading greatly improved:

As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.

But we use the Internet for so many practical things, from getting around to buying ticket. Wouldn’t he have trouble? Paul says he didn’t have much trouble:

For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don’t comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.

In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don’t need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.

So then why does he conclude he was wrong about the Internet? Part of it, Paul writes, is that while he was initially freed from vices related to the Internet, he soon found other vices:

By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.

A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.

Notice that he didn’t give up electronics – just the Internet. He could still play video games all day. It seems the hardest part for Paul was the impact not using the Internet had on his relationships. People use the Internet to communicate. If you’re not using it, you fall out of the loop.

People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.

[…]

So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a “Facebook friend,” but I can tell you that a “Facebook friend” is better than nothing.

Paul says this about the loneliness and disconnectedness he felt toward the end of the year:

I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.

In two weeks I’d be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.

He concludes that he’d been thinking about the Internet wrong before:

But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.

[…]

I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.

Full article: I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet

Here’s a video of Paul at the beginning of his experiment:

And a video recap of the year:

Other articles

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