Paul Miller, a technology writer for The Verge, performed a curious experiment over the last year: He quit the Internet. Miller replaced his smartphone with a feature phone. He got his news through TV and newspapers. He embarked on what he thought would be a liberating journey to find himself and a life not dominated by the immediacy of information and communication.
What he ultimately found was himself. Warts and all.
Noble But Naïve
Miller’s experiment, while noble, reeks of naïveté. People like to think they can change the way they are by changing their circumstances. Oftentimes somebody will move to a new city and say, “I am going to be a whole different person now.” It rarely works that way. Real behavioral, emotional and characteristic change is not something that happens overnight.
At first, Miller’s experiment started well. He biked more, got outside and found that his attention span was longer. Life without the Internet, he found, was oddly liberating.
For a little while, at least.
A year in, 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.
The Law Of Unintended Reality
It is undoubtedly true that the Internet is changing the intricacies of human behavior. This effect is especially pronounced among younger individuals who have known only a life with the Internet ever-available just a swipe or keystroke away.
Yet, ultimately, Internet or no, Miller’s own behavioral traits asserted themselves.
When I first read of Miller’s yearlong trial, my first thought was to applaud. I respected the project for its experimental and journalistic merits. I have seen other young people that have become disillusioned with the Internet and the life they lead on it and attempted to escape. Former ReadWrite author Jon Mitchell might describe himself that way.
But as I thought about it a little more, Miller’s decision to leave the Internet struck me as, to be honest, kind of dumb. I wish there was a nicer word for it. But, instead of trying to cope with his perceived personal deficiencies, he fled from them. It seems Miller had decided that his sense of self and worth was defined by the Web, so he tried to change things overnight. In the end, he just changed his location.
Miller admits to going through the modern psycho-sociological phenomenon known as a “quarter-life crisis.” This period of a person’s life, usually occurring between the ages of 24 to 26, is defined by a lack of definition. The behaviors, world concepts and sense of self built up since the teenage years come in doubt. These 20-somethings face the task of figuring out, yet again, who they really are. Sometimes they key on the notion that what had defined them before is the source of their problems and the best way to fix things is to completely disassociate with their previous life. For Miller, that definition of self stemmed from the Internet. He has lived on the Web since he was 12, earning his livelihood on it since he was 14.
I totally get what was going on. My own story is not so different from Miller’s. I started cooking professionally when I was 14. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was a trained chef. By 25, I would’ve given anything to get out of the kitchen and be a different person. Though my experience was not tied to the Web, the framework was similar. While I was able to successfully change careers (to the Web, ironically), I did not change the type of human being I was. Only time did that.
The Unexamined Life
There is a reason that our series on stepping back from from the Internet life is called ReadWrite Pause and not ReadWrite Quit or ReadWrite Disconnect. We realize it is healthy to step away, read a book, write something by hand or just Digital Detox for a couple of days. But we also know the difference between taking a break and giving up.
The Internet is what we make of it. Luckily, I have never had a problem turning off the computer to read a long book or go on a long bike ride. I have learned to compartmentalize my digital self from my physical self. The Internet does not define me. It is a part of what I do and what makes me… me. But it is not the core of my existence.
Miller, in the end, came to a similar conclusion:
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist’ who helped organize the conference [on Theorizing the Web]. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space.
Maybe it’s just me, but that seems kind of obvious.
Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.