"More than machinery, we need humanity."

A Year Without the Internet (but with everything else)

Regardless of whether a person believes that humans (in some evolutionary form) have been present on Earth for tens of thousands of years or whether they believe that humans arrived on Earth (with the click of cosmic fingers) about six thousand years ago, all sides should be able to agree on one thing: the Internet has only been around for a fraction of that time. And if you consider the true arrival of the age of the Internet to coincide with the relative replacement of dial up with broadband, well, in that case it’s even less time.

The point? Simply to indicate that when people say they: “can’t imagine life without the Internet” a fair rejoinder would be to tell them to go read a history book. Most of human history has occurred sans Internet.

And yet there are still many who are mystified by the idea of life without it, and thus the act of going even a year without the Internet can seem a Herculean feat. Enter Paul Miller, a tech journalist at The Verge who decided in May of 2012 to attempt to go a year without the net. And now? Well, the title of his recent Verge article was “I’m still here: back online after a year without the internet.”

To save his readers the panic of finding out whether or not Miller is now telling them that swearing off the net might be a good idea he chooses to put the conclusion at the beginning. With three simple words:

“I was wrong.”

The story that Miller relates is an easily understandable one. He found himself spending more and more time on the Internet, and grew steadily suspicious that perhaps:

“it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.””

So he decided to do without for a year, quite the drastic choice for a tech journalist to make, and as this move was curious, seemingly heretical, and therefore fascinating Miller was invited by the Verge to periodically write about his experience in going without the net. His ambition:

“would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.”

In Miller’s recounting his year begins with the abstention providing initial fruits as he found himself spending time with people in person, reading physical books, enjoying the outdoors, finding plenty of time to write, seemingly making a range of personal improvements, exercising more (he reports that he lost weight), he found his attention span improving, he used paper maps, asked for directions, wrote actual letters that needed to be mailed, and relates anecdotes that suggest that perhaps he became more emotionally free. But at year’s end:

“I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.”

Miller’s piece is an interesting one, and he deserves ample applause for attempting this project and for seeing it through; furthermore he deserves acknowledgement for writing a nuanced account of the year that notes that there were some benefits even as there were low points. Yet, in the end, Miller seems overcome by new problems that arose once he stopped using the Internet.

After all, Miller may have stopped using the Internet. But Miller’s friends? Miller’s family? They were all still using it. Not to be crass, but if you and all of your friends are addicts and you decide to swear the stuff off for a year…some of your still addicted friends might stop hanging out with you. They might at first, as a novelty, but sustaining the relationships can be difficult.  Miller mentions a close friend who has moved far away and notes that their communication was not what it once was (actual letters take time to reach their destinations) and he writes about a young relative who interprets his not skyping with her as a signal that he does not care to do so.

A year without the Internet is quite the project, it really is, but a year in which you go without the Internet, but during which you still kill time by playing video games, listening to audiobooks, using a cell phone, and using a computer to type your articles, is perhaps not a fully realized idea.


The above picture (reproduced from Miller’s Verge article in which it appears) gives a misleading image of the project. The image shows Miller sitting on a couch staring in thought at who knows what whilst candles (candles!) a record (a record!) newspapers (actual newspapers!) and stacks of books (classics!) are strewn about him. But Miller was still using a phone during his year of no Internet (it just wasn’t a smart phone), he was still using a computer to type his articles (he just wasn’t going online), and he still had a TV and a gaming console so that he could play Borderlands 2. Miller did not retreat to the seclusion of a cottage in the woods; he stayed in his apartment nestled firmly within the bosom of a technological society. If Miller found the changes not sticking perhaps it is because he gave up the Internet but kept all of its reminders around him.

Would it have been even more of a stunt if he had completely left technological society behind for a year? Yes, it would have been more of a stunt. But Miller would not have had the distraction of video games or audiobooks to fall back on, and perhaps with all of that extra time he could have written his niece a letter (which may have demonstrated more to her than skyping could have). The Internet can seem a frustrating modern distraction, but could the same not be said of video games? Surely. Granted, going a year just without video games seems like less of an accomplishment.

The blame for this does not rest with Miller, who (as I’ve noted repeatedly) I applaud for this effort; rather it is evidence of the fact that the Internet has truly altered the ways in which we interact with each other. One cannot be truly surprised if his friends not engaged in a similar project were somewhat caught off guard by Miller’s move, and they cannot be overly faulted if they found it onerous to keep in touch with Miller once he no longer communicated through the same mediums. You can laugh at how Facebook defines “friend” (or home, or anything else for that matter) but if all of your friends communicate on Facebook, than going without the former may result in going without some of the latter.

Perhaps the addiction comparison is unfair. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that Miller’s friends were speaking in modernity-tuned English (complete with OMGs and LOLs) while Miller decided to go back to speaking only in Olde English. Could they still understand each other? Sure, if they were really willing to try, but they were almost speaking a different language.

Furthermore some of Miller’s seeming loneliness and ennui seems less a result of his leaving the Internet than of the fact everybody else was still online. It might have been an entirely different conclusion had Miller embarked on the project with a cohort of, say, five other committed individuals. Which is to say nothing of what Miller might have come away with if instead of going without the net he truly stepped back from modern technology.

Ultimately Miller’s article evinces not so much a task worthy of Hercules (going without modern technology might be such a challenge), but rather an effort more in line with the ordeal of Sisyphus. For “going without the Internet” could never be a freeing thing for Miller when he continued using the myriad other tools of modern technology, and it was not a freeing thing when all of his friends and family remained as online as ever (if not more so). Thus going without the Internet was just a boulder that Miller had to push up the mountain only for it to roll down only for him to do it again. Though at least he could tell himself, in his most frustrated moments, that he only had to do it for a year.

Miller is not a Luddite, not in the derogatory (and incorrect) usage of that term, and not in the confrontational (and more correct) usage of that term. Miller’s efforts are more reminiscent of Douglas Rushkoff’s suggestions, in his new book Present Shock (more [much more] on that), that people need to find balance with their technology usage; rather than a much deeper and more wide ranging swearing off of technology (more on that here). And while Miller’s conclusion (which would seem to be that balance is a good thing) is unsurprising, it would have been much more interesting had the tech journalist truly gone low tech for a year, instead of just his unplugging his modem.

Miller had couched his effort in the idea that the project:

“would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.”

But in the end his article just shows that while the Internet is a problem, it is not one that is solved by a single person’s abstention. And his video game and audio book supported inured loneliness suggests not what the “internet had done to me over the years,” but what technology had done to him over the years.

In the end, Miller was right at the beginning to state “I was wrong,” for the problem is not the Internet. The problem is the technological society of which the Internet is just a part (albeit a large part). Going a year without the Internet is a worthy experiment, and an interesting opportunity to step back, but a year without the Internet that still has most of the other technological accoutrements of modern life is an experiment built on a fault hypothesis.

If you want to be like Henry David Thoreau, you need to be more thorough. If technology has you walled in, just giving up the Internet, is not Walden.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “A Year Without the Internet (but with everything else)

  1. adithyaentertainment
    May 14, 2013

    Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

    • worldtake
      June 1, 2013

      It is a simple fact that the brain is like a muscle. The more technology we rely on the less we work that muscle. Welcome to the De-evolution of the human race.

      • worldtake
        June 1, 2013

        Instead of “the human race”, I should have said human intelligence. Even if all of us not develop intelligence, we will still be genetically human.

  2. Pingback: One Weekend in the Woods is not an Ideology | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on May 5, 2013 by in Community, Culture, History, Luddism, Nature, Society, Technology, The Internet and tagged , .

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