Tech writer Paul Miller’s contentious experiment to log-off from internet devices for a whole year is coming to an end in two weeks (HT Maggi Dawn for the story, which she flagged on facebook this morning), and in a very frank and illuminating article (sent in by post, no doubt – he has had no access to email, smartphone, web etc) he concludes ‘I was wrong.’
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.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
Miller was given a lot of stick for even embarking on this experiment, and all credit to him for taking it on the chin and sticking with the project. But even more credit for being so open about the failings, as well as successes, of his time offline. In one sense, that’s good enough for me: achieving that level of reflection is a big plus.
His conclusion is pretty clear: the vices we talk about in relation to the internet are really vices inside of us that are given easy expression through the online tools we use. But going offline does not change us, just as removing an alcoholic from their drink doesn’t change the fact of their addiction.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
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.
There are important lessons for all of us here. New technologies may change the ease with which certain aspects of our lives surface – whether that be online gambling, porn, anxieties about friendships or the need for affirmation – but they are not the root of them. So spending less time online may change the way that these parts of us are amplified (and that in itself may be helpful) but they will not cure us of our addictions or salve our deep needs.
The problem is that, especially with social media, they are sold to us on a lie that they will: more connections, faster connections, better communication with friends, never alone, life lived at 30MB/s… And yet the truth is that, once we have unboxed our newest smartphone, or upgraded our connection, the same desires and vulnerabilities still linger, an abyss never satisfied no matter how many ‘likes’ or RTs…
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
There’s something worthy about what he’s saying here, but also something dangerous. Yes, the internet makes many connections possible, and that’s a brilliant thing. But to say that ‘the internet is where people are’ is wrong, because ‘people’ are made up of each one of us – and that would mean that ‘the internet is where I am.’
It is not, or at least it should not be. I am where I am. I might use the internet, but I do not enter it, or become located in it.
It is this confusion between tools and identity that, I think, caused Miller to want to embark on his yearlong log-off. My concern would be that he has not found ‘himself’ amongst the continued noise of offline tools. When he says he didn’t want to meet this Paul, I’d say that’s because Paul – like so many techno-natives never got beyond the confusion of himself and his tools. And perhaps that’s what Jonny has been getting at with his posts on silence, because perhaps silence is the place where we properly down all our tools and see who’s there.
Here’s a link to a video piece about his time…
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