Paul Miller’s debriefing: some considerations

Tech Life

At the end of April 2012, Paul Miller, one of the writers at The Verge, started his experiment — staying away from the Internet for a year. During his leave of absence, The Verge periodically published his observations about his newfound ‘unplugged experience’; I read a few of those articles, and I’ve enjoyed Miller’s style and musings. I remember, one year ago, how many people considered his experiment just a silly thing. Some — rather patronisingly, I must say — were quick to point out that to have a well-adjusted relationship with today’s always-on state of connectedness, it’s better to use the network wisely, to actively control its influence over our lives, and to act accordingly when we perceive it’s just too much.

I defended Miller’s intentions and his desire to start a path of self-discovery. In the past, people left their urban environment and went to India and the Far East on trips of self-discovery (and I mean trips in every way). Miller’s journey is no different — a kind of modern equivalent of that, if you want.

Now he’s back, and he has summarised his year away from the Internet in a very interesting article. Sure, Miller’s considerations can be condensed as follows: leaving the Internet was great at first — more time to think, focus, read, write and give friends and relatives the attention they deserved; but after a while old (bad) habits resurfaced, things devolved into periods of inertia, and also came the realisation that the problem isn’t Internet per se, but lies within one’s self.

Therefore, some people (Miller included, perhaps) will consider this Internet-deprivation experiment a failure. I don’t think it’s been a failure. If this one-year sabbatical has brought Miller a better understanding of his self, then it’s been successful. Anyway, Miller’s summary has been a thought-provoking read, so here are some observations I’d like to add.

Back to where you’ve never been

There’s a detail that struck me when reading Miller’s piece. At one point, not far from the beginning, he writes:

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.

Using the Internet constantly since the age of twelve means not having much memories of how things were before the Internet. What’s good about this is that Miller’s viewpoint isn’t much affected by nostalgia. You can’t really pine for what you don’t know. This, in a way, made Miller’s journey away from the Internet more ‘pure’ and also more challenging. For comparison, when I started using the Internet constantly I was 28. That makes a huge difference. If I were to do a similar Internet-deprivation experiment, it would be quite easy for me to switch back to my pre-Internet days. I could find and relive my good old routines in a few days. This is mainly because, having developed a life before the Internet, I’ve never really felt my online and offline dimensions as two inextricably intertwined components. As I wrote in my article Online, offline, and the ‘need’ to share:

I tend to see some kind of separation between the online and the offline because, well, I lived that moment when the online started creeping into my life. I lived that moment where the online started becoming an activity that separated me, in some ways, from my surroundings. I lived that moment in which logging in and ‘going online’ was somehow like going someplace else. And since I could spend (a lot of) time doing things in this ‘other place’, the experience was more addicting and detaching than, say, losing myself in a book (an ‘offline’ activity). While over the years and especially in these recent years I’ve come to accept this increasing interconnection between the online and the offline, while I’ve come to terms with the fact that technology has gone under our skin (figuratively for now, and maybe literally soon), for me the “disconnection from the smartphone and social media” is still a disconnection, and “the logic of social media” doesn’t follow me long after I log out.

So, if I disconnected from the Internet for a year, I’d simply remove the ‘online’ component, and it’d be easier for me because I always felt the ‘online’ component as something that has been added to, not implanted in (or grown within) my life.

That’s why I think Miller did a rather good job in finding his ‘offline space’, at least at first. And in my opinion, one of the reasons why things haven’t stayed great in Miller’s Internet-less life is precisely because his experience without Internet was somehow new, was something he never really experienced before as an adult. This has a significant impact when it comes to connect and socialise with other people. Or in this case, maintaining connections that have for the most part developed within the Internet era.

Out of sync

Miller writes:

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.

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.

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.

My best long-distance friend, one I’d talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven’t spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.

I fell out of sync with the flow of life.

These observations perfectly exemplify the point of view of someone whose life, relationships and connections have all been developing in a meaningful way within the Internet era. It’s hard being disconnected when everyone else in your life is not. It’s hard having to communicate through ways — the phone call, the written letter, dropping by someone’s place — that are considered dated and quaint. Today, an unannounced visit (even among friends) is basically frowned upon, almost treated as an unauthorised intrusion. I fondly remember a time when it was considered a pleasant surprise.

The ‘finding people’ aspect Miller talks about is another thing where my experience and his experience significantly diverge. Having developed my strongest friendships mostly before the advent of the Internet, if I were to stay disconnected for a year, I wouldn’t encounter much friction in reverting to ‘older’ ways of (re)connecting with my best friends. We all used to chat a lot on the phone, and arrange meetings and outings via phone or text. If I could afford such an Internet-free sabbatical, I guess it would be beneficial to my personal relationships, because most of them actually started suffering when the Internet began pervading our lives. For someone in my position, all this talking about Internet that ‘connects’ people, all this babbling about the ‘power of social media’, is rather ridiculous. For someone in my position, apart from a good few exceptions, the ‘connections’ developed via the Internet can’t really compare with relationships developed and cultivated in person, in the ‘offline’ dimension.

In general, Internet has brought convenience, more than depth, to the way we connect with one another. That’s why, for me, a “Facebook friend” is not better than nothing. That’s why, for me, certain ways of being ‘connected’ via the Internet aren’t all that different from when people keep the TV or the radio on because “it keeps them company”.

Yes, when we put Internet aside, we also put aside its convenience: every road looks uphill, we see every small delay or obstacle as ‘friction’, and it’s hard to keep up when everyone drives a car and you’re the only one on foot. Perhaps Miller could have been more proactive in his attempts to keep in touch with people, but I also think that his friends and acquaintances — knowing his situation — could also have gone the extra mile more often. What I find especially sad in that “falling out of sync with the flow of life” is that we’re living in such dysfunctional times where people of Miller’s age (and younger) feel compelled to return to the Internet because, as Miller writes, “The Internet is where the people are”. Internet should be a part of the flow of life, sure, yet I’m feeling that Internet is progressively commandeering the flow of life. And while not everything Internet has brought with it is bad, I can’t help but feel saddened by where things are going.

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