Leaving the Internet for a year

Tech Life

At the end of April, Paul Miller of The Verge published an article explaining that in May he would leave the Internet for a year. Since the Internet, and especially tech-oriented sites and blogs, feast on things like these, it was obvious and predictable that such a decision would trigger the most varied reactions. On Twitter, I stopped counting the jokes and irony against Miller, and the general immaturity of said reactions (there’s the inevitable mockery as well) has led me to react, in turn, by pointing out: Guy decides to leave the Internet for a year. People make fun of him. Who would leave the Internet when it’s so full of mature people!?

At the heart of Miller’s reasons there’s this bit:

Now I want to see the Internet at a distance. By separating myself from the constant connectivity, I can see which aspects are truly valuable, which are distractions for me, and which parts are corrupting my very soul. What I worry is that I’m so “adept” at the Internet that I’ve found ways to fill every crevice of my life with it, and I’m pretty sure the Internet has invaded some places where it doesn’t belong.

Many of the most critical reactions against Miller (critical and serious, I mean) tend to emphasise how this experiment is essentially useless, because basically, once the offline period is over, everything will go back as it was before. Others have said that removing Internet in its entirety from your life is an unnecessarily drastic, and ultimately ineffective, approach; a state of forced self-castration that would pretend to solve a problem by eliminating it completely. A more reasoned and selective approach would be preferable, pruning unnecessary branches to achieve a more balanced relationship with the current always-on lifestyle.

In my opinion all of these objections are justified, but I tend to sympathise with Miller and his intentions, and I think that in part he has been misunderstood. As I said before, I consider the Internet and this ‘always online’ dimension as a kind of necessary drug. Necessary not so much because it is essential per se, but because it is an ingredient of today’s reality we must inevitably deal with, in one way or another. Internet acts just like any other drug, including alcohol and smoking, creating addiction and instant gratification that lead users to want more and more of it. With the incredible proliferation of smartphones and tablets, ‘doing stuff online’ is no longer an activity relegated to staying in front of a computer in a bedroom, study or office. It’s like having an endless supply of cigarettes always with us, or a flask that never runs out of whiskey. And like any drug, Internet changes people’s habits (I think that the changes are generally for the worse, but it’s not what I want to talk about right now).

Many people are fine with the changes brought about by this increasingly intrusive Internet, because they have instinctively found a balance, or because they feel that staying connected the whole time is not a problem and is not perceived as such. For those — like Miller — who instead realise that Internet’s ubiquity is becoming something that brings a detrimental impact on their lives, the problem becomes how to ‘detoxify’, how to come off it, or at least how to adjust the intoxication to acceptable levels (and this is my case, because my work keeps me from simply logging off completely from the Internet for a year, although I admit I’d love it). And this is where things get complicated, because usually the solution to any drug problem is detoxification: to cure themselves permanently, any addict, smoker, alcoholic must stop taking the drug, period. Tell a heroin addict to “lower the dose,” tell a smoker to “smoke less,” tell a drinker to “drop the whiskey and just drink a couple of glasses of wine at lunch” — all suggestions that do not solve the problem. In these cases, things are really either black or white. With the Internet, it’s all shades of grey.

With the Internet everyone has to find their own system for adjusting their ‘intoxication’. Again, there are those who can do that with continuous adjustments, every day, in real time. Some people manage to find a balance between online life, its information overload, and offline moments of detachment to share in person with friends and family. Then there are people like Miller, who, in all probability, have kept going on, believing that everything was going well, until one day they came to a breaking point when they realised that things were spinning out of control. It happened to an acquaintance of mine when, in an emergency situation, he realised he was more committed to tweeting about that emergency situation rather than actually putting himself out of harm’s way; this was the extent of his conditioned reflexes.

So, perhaps Miller’s idea to leave Internet for a year is utter nonsense, because in May 2013 he will just reconnect and within a week he’ll find himself living his online life and online habits exactly as before, and therefore he won’t have solved anything. But his experiment can also serve him to better understand which parts of the Internet are essential to him, which are not exactly so, and which can be entirely eliminated, as indeed he mentioned in his piece. (What’s more, such a period of self-imposed exile may be useful for getting rid of certain conditioned reflexes deriving from our daily interaction with the online world, especially through social networks and related services). Maybe others in Miller’s position would simply need a week or a month offline, but we are all different people and I believe we should respect Miller’s decision, instead of reacting with sarcasm, mockery, or thinking that our methods of experiencing Internet are the best or are applicable to anyone indiscriminately.

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