Giving Up The Internet: It’s Never About The Tools

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.

Miller notes:

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…

Miller concludes:

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…


5 responses to “Giving Up The Internet: It’s Never About The Tools”

  1. In Rollins-esque fashion…

    “Leaving the internet doesn’t make you depressed. Leaving the internet shows you that you already are depressed, you just don’t know it yet.”

  2. It’s interesting that he gave up the Internet, but still continued using tools in an anemic sort of way (our tools are all now shaped and designed by and for Internet connection, so he kept the tools though severed from the Internet). A very interesting and brave experiment indeed, and it certainly sheds light on ways (and ways we THINK) the Internet does/doesn’t affect us. Being uncritical of technology is the most dangerous thing, regardless of acceptance or rejection. Perhaps instead of, “The Internet is where the people are” we could say, “The people are where the Internet is.” Better yet, “The people WERE where the Internet is.” For we are never quite present on the Internet and always playing catch-up.

  3. Nicholas

    Hi Kes, I hope your well mate.

    Interesting experiment, but I can’t say that I am surprised by this guy’s findings. I do however want to make a small point regarding your brief assessment of his statement ‘The internet is where people are.’. You say:

    ‘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.”

    I agree with your literal assessment, however I don’t believe he meant this in any way, literally. I think that the statement ‘The internet is where people are.’ is very true psychologically; as the majority of people I know, in essence, live their entire social lives through the internet. Although this is not the physical interpretation that you clearly pointed out (and probably purposefully to start a debate!), I think it takes precedence over it.
    Indeed if we treat the statement ‘The internet is where people are.’ from a purely philosophical standpoint, to me, it becomes a far more interesting quote. For me, regretfully, I think ‘The internet IS where people are’.
    I apologies if I have fallen in to one of your deep logical traps! Just let me go and I will be on my way!


  4. Nick – great comments. And I guess what I have tried to do here is get into the tension between the literal and philosophical / psycho-social interpretations of that concluding statement… but you can call it a trap!

    With people investing so much of themselves online, I think you’re right to express some regret at the situation where people have ‘become’ their facebook. In other words, rather than being present in any moment, with their kids, whatever, they are looking at it from a perspective of ‘wow, my fb friend will think this is cool,’ or ‘this will get me a lot of sympathy-likes.’

    The follow-up question then might be whether this diminishes people’s essential humanity so much that the internet is where…’people’… aren’t. Because it is a place where we become something less-than-person.

    Then again, in more psycho-spiritual terms, it could be that the modern locus of the ‘soul’ is one people’s fb accounts: it is where they store all of the best and purest of themselves… But that doesn’t make it good.

    That’s why I was trying to make a cheeky challenge to people (and to myself) to remove their sense of identity and validation from the internet… but to do that as a path towards understanding that that will only lead them to see that the deep desires and aches for fulfilment that they have are not cured by logging off.

    Hence, what I think we need to do as a culture is continue to embrace these technologies, but simultaneously return to an existence that is more located in the physical. Because I just don’t buy it that online friendship is any substitute for real physical presence. Big tech companies will keep trying to convince us, but only because (and who knows with Google Glass coming) they haven’t yet found a way to slap advertising on a bunch of mates at the pub… (Though may be Nike and Ralph Lauren beat them to it)

  5. Steve Priest

    Doesn’t our ‘addiction’ to the ‘internet’ simply tap into our innate need to commune on some level? To give up the ‘internet’ in this day and age is tantamount to becoming a hermit. It is treated with suspicion in the same way as when you were at school and one kid in the class or school who didn’t own a telly was treated like an alien. We couldn’t possibly imagine not having the conversation about the latest episode of Dallas or Scooby Doo.

    Moreover, where the ‘internet’ really works, for me, is in being able to maintain a connection with people with whom a physical connection has occurred but is not always practical or possible to maintain.

    When I met my wife 30 years ago on holiday we wrote copious letters to one another in the aftermath to bridge the 100 miles between us. Now my daughter meets a boy and she texts or ‘Facebooks’ them with the same vigour, albeit greater frequency.

    Essentially, the ‘internet’ (not sure why I am persisting with the quotes there) and the tools we access it with, like most technological advances, merely speed up the process on connecting people together.