Paul Miller’s Leaving the Internet for a Year—Why?  

A writer for The Verge, Paul posted his plans on the site to much internet acclaim and kudos:

At midnight tonight I will leave the internet. I’m abandoning one of my “top 5” technological innovations of all time for a little peace and quiet. If I can survive the separation, I’m going to do this for a year. Yeah, I’m serious. I’m not leaving The Verge, and I’m not becoming a hermit, I just won’t use the internet in my personal or work life, and won’t ask anyone to use it for me.

Cute idea, and a fun challenge if you want to randomly cut things out of your life to earn some strange badge of honor. But my question to Paul and everyone who gave him virtual pats on the back is: Why?

 What’s the problem that needs solving?

I’m in firm disagreement when it comes to people claiming the internet is bad for your health or your soul or your ability to interact with the outdoors. Much like anything else on earth–food, exercise, sex, television, video games, even water–if you overindulge or let yourself lose control, there will be a negative effect on your health and life. But the internet itself, and computers, are not unhealthy. Every few months some wacko on CNN proclaims using Facebook for too many hours a day will shorten childrens’ lives and turn them into zombies, but that’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Paul gives lose reasoning for his internet abandonment project:

I feel like I’ve only examined the internet up close. It’s been personal and pervasive in my life for over a decade, and I spend on average 12+ hours a day directly at an internet-connected terminal (laptop, iPad, Xbox), not to mention all the ambient internet my smartphone keeps me aware of.

Emphasis added. I’m not sure what “examined the internet up close” means, but I’ve emphasized the real problem in that paragraph–instead of removing yourself from internet access entirely, how about just, you know, cutting back? It’s called self control. It’s very useful. Paul continues to justify his cold-turkey approach:

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.

Paul knows exactly which parts of the internet are truly valuable to him–he mentions several of them in his post’s accompanying video. He says Wikipedia is one of his favorite sites, he mentions using Yelp and eBay–it’s a bit ridiculous to pretend you don’t know what you value on the internet and then use an internet video service to tell people exactly what you value. More justification:

I’m also interested in a sans-internet reality as a technology writer. There was a time when technological innovation didn’t seem intimately linked to the internet. Most pre-80s sci-fi, for instance, explored those futures. Now I’d like to examine what modern technology looks like in a TCP/IP vacuum. Is the internet truly the oxygen of our electronics, or just an important piece?

Perhaps this has its place–writing about the internet on the internet is a metaphor for… ugh, nothing–but at least I see the kitsch appeal. Still, this is a real stretch. Especially considering since Paul isn’t allowed to use the internet all, anything he writes will be completely devoid of experience. That doesn’t make for great writing, in my experience.

Eventually, Paul gets to the final reason he’s leaving the internet for a year, and it’s a doozy:

In my wild fantasies, leaving the internet will make me better with my time, vastly more creative, a better friend, a better son and brother… a better Paul. In reality, I’ll still be the same person, just with a huge professional and personal handicap. The things I’ll miss most, like playing StarCraft with my friend from high school who lives in another state, or sharing Rdio and long read links with a co-worker at the next desk over, I hope to replace with more direct interactions, and more “meaningful” activities - whatever that means. The worst case scenario is that a year from now I’ll be found wandering in the woods somewhere, muttering URLs to myself.

In psychiatric circles, I believe this is referred to as delusion. Paul Miller believes that by ceasing use of the internet, he’ll become a better person. By forcing himself to do all the things he doesn’t do today, he’ll realize this perfect life where he’s always having deeply meaningful interactions with society. The problem is, Paul could do all of these things today, while still using the internet. He could hang out with friends more frequently, send fewer emails, spend less time trolling Facebook. The internet isn’t the cause of Paul’s (assumed) boring, meaningless life. Paul is. Walking away from the internet won’t make fixing any of this any easier. But Paul thinks it will.

 The solution and new problems

So Paul Miller is leaving the internet for a year. He purchased an old Nokia phone, disconnected all of his cables, and turned off Wi-Fi. Now what? Turns out, because Paul works at an internet company, he makes his problem everyone else’s problem. To work, Paul writes his Verge stories locally on his laptop and then puts them on a USB flash drive and hands it to his editor, who must then deal with this extra step every time. To print something, Paul must walk over to the printer and plug in a cable. I don’t see how any of these things will make Paul a better person.

And how exactly will Paul write for The Verge? Will he get his story ideas from the AM New York newspaper? Will he be assigned stories from editors and then write them in a vacuum? Will he only write about things that happened in the local library? How can a writer for a technology website in 2012 not use the internet and write anything meaningful? Let’s suppose this isn’t an issue, and Paul somehow manages to write amazing stores for The Verge. Does it now fall upon other writers/editors at the company to read feedback on his stories and share it with Paul? Why is this their problem?

(As an aside, I feel I need to point out the irony of using “I’m leaving the internet for a year” as a way to drum up as many page visits to your internet website as you can. If you’re going to leave the internet, and you feel it’s extremely toxic in your life, why would you feel the need to make a video, write a post, answer questions on Reddit, et cetera? Just unplug and be done with it. If this is truly about personal well-being, then why try to make it an internet sensation?)

It should also be noted that by not using the internet, Paul is indirectly (or in some cases directly) using more electricity, gasoline and expelling more carbon. Sure, Paul rides a bicycle (as is shown several times in his video), but it takes a lot of power and dead trees to print all those phonebooks and newspapers he’s going to be using. When he visits friends for these “meaningful” interactions, if they live out of biking distance, he’ll be using more cabs. And all that snail mail he’s sending to let family members know he’s alive will travel on trucks and planes to for days to get to their destination. Perhaps this is a minor issue for most people, but as someone who cares about carbon footprints, I don’t think it’s responsible for someone to waste more power and add more pollution to the earth so they can feel good about not playing Starcraft all day.

 People have done this before (spoilers!)

In Paul’s Reddit IAmA just before pulling the plug, Reddit user EatingSteak wrote about his own experience of leaving the internet for a year from 2009-2010. Unsurprisingly, he recommends against it for various simple reasons:

  • It wasn’t nearly as challenging as I had expected. I mean, I still had a job and a car, and stuff like buying groceries and walking in the park hadn’t changed.
  • The minor conveniences really showed through. I had to use a PHONE BOOK to find a locksmith. A PHONE BOOK (really, first time in over 10 years). Booking plane tickets was a pain in the ass. Finding a newspaper or whatever to get movie showtimes. What time does this restaurant close, etc etc. What’s going on [in] the city this weekend…
  • It became rather dull rather quickly. The movies, TV shows, and games I had saved on my computer became stale rather quickly. When I bought games in the store, they always ran like shit [be]cause my comp[uter] wasn’t patched. Had to have a friend get updates/drivers onto a CD, bleh (is that cheating?).
  • Everything happened more slowly. You’d be surprised how much interesting stuff you have to talk and learn about of you actually read something that isn’t cat pictures. And how boring you seem when you don’t.
  • Regained some appreciation for “old” forms of media, but was more often reminded of how much they suck. I fired through a lot of books, which was nice (and easier, when you’re not getting bombarded with emails and Facebook requests, and crap like that). Other than that, news from a paper or on TV is just insufferable. Ew.
  • Life just seemed to pass me by a bit more. I was always behind what games, movies and TV shows were hot, what news was interesting, how far battery technology or cell phone trends had developed (heh, I almost completely missed the decline of Blackberry).

The reality is, the internet is one of the best tools for being alive. Need to find a new car? Internet. Need to hire a pet-sitter? Internet. Need to know what time the next train leaves your local station? Internet. Need a recipe for cheesecake? Internet. Need to invite all of your friends to a party you’re throwing? Internet. Sure, it’s possible to do these things without the internet, just like it’s possible to build a house without power tools. Possible, yes. Best way to do something? No. The internet is a tool that makes your life immeasurably easier. Good luck using your phone books (where do you even get one) and driving from business to business when evaluating pet-sitters and visiting Barnes & Noble every time you want to make a meal that isn’t in one of your currently-owned cook books. Everything becomes more time consuming and expensive, while not becoming any more meaningful.

If you feel you have a problem with using the internet too much, use the internet less. Nothing is gained by making it ten times harder to order a pizza on a Friday night or find a homeopathic cure for a rash. If you feel like you’re not being creative, do something creative. Turning off Wi-Fi isn’t suddenly going to make you a different person. You’re going to have all the same problems you had before, only now they’re going to be even more annoying to other people. Paul doesn’t need to quit the internet for a year, Paul needs to control himself and reduce his use to reasonable limits, get some creative hobbies, and spend more time with his friends.

The internet isn’t the problem with our society, the problem with our society is impulse control.


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