Just over a year ago, Paul Miller switched off the internet. No email, no Facebook, no Skype, no Google. None of it.
And the blogger began a year-long experiment in living offline, documenting his experience in diaries, delivered by hand, of course, and published at The Verge, the online magazine for which he is a senior editor.
Why quit the internet?
I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul” …
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 … 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 …
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.
At the end of his nominated period of exile, Miller reflects on his year in an essay.
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 it did seem to be working. At first.
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 …
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back …
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
But, bit by bit, his enthusiasm for life without the internet began to wear thin.
While, for example, writing and receiving letters had been a pleasure at first, it quickly began to feel like a chore. “For some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work,” he writes. “I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.”
Miller quickly “learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet”. He “abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices”.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
His links with friends and family became tested. He stopped getting in touch. He “fell out of sync with the flow of life”.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
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.
As the year came to its end, he really, really wanted to get back online.
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.
And how was it, returning to the internet? Naturally, the whole thing was livestreamed, so you can watch it here.
Miller was excited, overwhelmed; he “had a panic attack as I attempted to pull off basic 21st-century manoeuvres like managing multiple tabs in a single browser window”.
I stayed at the office until 3AM, clicking, scrolling, and tabbing. When I got home at 3:30AM I wanted to get back online, but mercifully I didn’t know the Wi-Fi password yet, and my roommate was asleep, and so I went to bed. My mind churned for half an hour before I slept.
Maybe there’s something about information that makes you want more of it. Something about the fear I have of the internet that produces adrenaline. Something that makes me love the internet as much as I try to hate it.