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Guy Leaves Internet For A Year, Finds That That Doesn’t Solve All His Problems

A writer named Paul Miller has done what most people could probably only dream of–he completely unplugged from the Internet for an entire year, hoping to find out “what else there was to life.”

A year later, he returned, only to tell us this:

I was wrong.

One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”

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.

I think it’s worthwhile commending Miller for two achievements that must people might not be able to manage (and no, neither are quitting the ‘net):

1. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his public identity, Miller told us the truth about what really happened. Many people in this situation would lie, quietly back off the subject, or try to put some sort of spin on it to suggest that they were still right all along.

2. Despite making quitting the internet to find a better life a huge part of his personal identity, Miller overcame confirmation bias and realized that his internet fast wasn’t helping. Many others would probably engage in enough mental jujitsu to keep believing whatever’s most consistent with their beliefs and identity–in Miller’s case, that quitting the internet helps you find a better life.

For me, the most poignant bit of Miller’s article was this: “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.”

First of all, this is true in a literal sense. Casual online buddies can’t replace those close, inseparable friendships where you bond over cheap wine, campy television, and political rants at 2 AM. They just can’t. But they give you people to talk to, bounce ideas off of, grab coffee with (if you live near each other), get restaurant recommendations from, and meet other people through.

Second, sometimes “Facebook friends” grow to mean more to you than any meatspace friend can. My “Facebook friends” have been there for me when nobody else has. That’s the biggest reason I’d never pull a stunt like Miller’s.

Technology like the Internet is a tool. With a few exceptions, any tool you can think of can be used adaptively or maladaptively, helpfully or harmfully. It’s not always clear which is which, because it’s very contextual.

What if I told you that I literally spend HOURS a day at the computer? Many consecutive hours. Many people, especially people of older generations than me, might be horrified.

But what if I also told you that I work out for an hour almost every day, see friends in person a few times a week, and spend most of my online time talking to close friends, reading things that interest me, and writing?

That starts to sound pretty different.

It may very well be the case that some people for whatever reason are just incapable of using the Internet adaptively. If they go online even for a bit, they end up losing hours playing mindless games or refreshing Facebook or watching YouTube videos. For those people, purposefully cutting down (or even eliminating) Internet time can be helpful, at least until they learn how to manage it effectively.

However, I think the reason Miller wasn’t successful at this is because it’s rarely helpful to view personal development as denying yourself something rather than giving yourself better alternatives and forming good habits to replace the bad ones.

For instance, diets often fail because people get miserable at the thought of everything they can’t eat. Ice cream. Chocolate. Pizza. Popcorn. Soda. Carbs. Red meat. If you keep trying to eliminate Bad Things rather than implement Good Things, you’ll probably either find yourself eating a really shitty but sweets-and-pizza-free diet, or you’ll find yourself falling off the wagon.

This is sort of what Miller did:

My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.

Perhaps this is because he didn’t quite identify what was so wrong with his life with the Internet (at least, not in the article; maybe he did to himself). But if he had, he could’ve instead set concrete goals about how he would fix it without necessarily going offline cold-turkey: “Try one new Meetup group per month.” “Call so-and-so every Sunday.” “Install software that limits my time on Facebook and Tumblr.” “Unsubscribe from all my RSS feeds.” Whatever tips your cow.

Psychologically, setting goals like these is much more useful and much more likely to produce results than “Quit the Internet and chill at my parents’ and stuff.”

And with the dieting analogy, what I’ve personally found much more useful than trying to “diet” or “cut down” on things I eat is to just give myself healthier alternatives. I decide that I’m going to buy bell peppers, which are delicious. I think about how much I love olive oil and I put it on my pasta instead of butter. And sometimes I still eat shitty things, but it’s ok because a lot of the time I’m working on eating non-shitty things.

I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with quitting the Internet entirely; I’m not one to begrudge people like Miller their idealism and grandiosity. But it’s clear that the Internet is something that some people really do have a lot of trouble with because it sucks them in and interferes with their “real” life, so it’s important to find strategies that actually work. I’m not sure that going cold-turkey is something that works for many people.

Comments

  1. says

    Agree with you in parts: Getting rid of FB was the best thing I ever did, time-wise, and privacy-wise as well. Disagree wrt FB friends, the ones that were “there for me” were the ones that were there in real life anyway, and the rest was really just there to make the numbers look good, or they were (in my case, insert your own interest group) from the Pharyngula FB group, or people you were supposed to add for nettiquette or whatever.

    Agree with you when it comes to quitting the net entirely, the point is really to learn how to use it effectively without letting it suck you in, rather than going cold turkey. Too many everyday actions are done on the net these days, and they actually add convenience, and win you time, like eg doing your banking, or mail communication, or shopping, or booking a holiday.

    I can go without twitter or my RSS feeds for a week, just like I can go without smoking. The secret is I think to make these new technologies work for you, not to let them suck you in and rule your life.

  2. says

    I do find it interesting that there is this persistent meme which states “the internet is not real”.

    Just this morning, I used Facebook to spread some family news. It was important news and in no other way could I have distributed it as quickly or as efficiently.

    A few years ago, I went on an extended “walkabout”. I used Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, so they knew I was safe. I also kept in touch with clients and even picked up a writing job while I was on the road. Without the internet, that could not have happened.

    The internet is real. We should treat it like it is.

  3. Scr... Archivist says

    … and spend most of my online time talking to close friends, reading things that interest me, and writing?

    If you lived in a previous generation, you would be talking to those friends on the telephone (which is plugged into the wall in your living room), reading books and newspapers, and recording your thoughts with a typewriter or good old-fashioned pen-and-paper. You might even write letters back and forth with people.

    And I expect none of your peers in that era would have thought these activities were strange. No one would have thought they were not real actions in the real world because there were mediated communications. I expect only a few people would see them as wasted time or anti-social.

    Maybe in the past, people could make a distinction between reading the Sunday New York Times cover to cover and watching sitcoms and cop shows until the national anthem played because these were two obviously-different technologies. And maybe some people today see the constructive hours you spend on your computer as no different from looking at YouTube and funny cat macros all day because all of these activities can be done with one device.

    Meanwhile, there are people put butter on their pasta?!? I’m floored.

  4. says

    To me, it seems like there’s an incredible romanticism built up around fasting of any kind. I think it’s traceable to same impulse that gives rise to religious cleansing rituals like baptism, or ritual baths. Or maybe it’s the cultural residue they leave behind that gives rise to the impulse.

  5. left0ver1under says

    Going without something (voluntarily or involuntarily) for extended periods of time really doesn’t change things. I went without TV for several years when I was young (after being a Saturday cartoon addict when I was age 5-7) and it make any difference. People claim the internet turned them into sex addicts, and that is rarely true.

    It’s almost always down to the person and any underlying problems within oneself. The presence and then absense of technologies only changes opportunities, they don’t create desires.

  6. mildlymagnificent says

    The excerpts you quote sound to me a bit too much like all those people who dream about the wonderful life they’ll lead when they retire from their job or profession. Some of these people learn that it’s an opportunity to do new stuff. Far too many find themselves floating purposelessly from one day to another without ever finding a new purpose for any given day. They just do less and less of what they’ve always done, rather than using the freedom to take up carpentry or studying entomology or volunteering for their local school/ community kitchen or breeding new orchids/ roses or even, gasp!, taking up a new, maybe part-time, job.

    If you don’t plan to do any particular thing, you may find yourself doing nothing worth anything.