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.
Paul Miller, writer and lifelong techie, went a year without using the internet. No e-mail, no Facebook, no Google Maps, no Expedia, nothing.
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
[...] As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
It’s funny the kneejerk admiration we have for people who voluntarily opt out of technology we’ve had for less than two decades. Miller got regular fan mail from admirers, an outpouring of ‘good for you’ sentiments in his PO box every week. When I first read his ‘Goodbye Internet’ post a year ago, I remember my reaction being ‘good for this dude!’
We have this weird conventional wisdom that the internet (by which we usually mean its more superficial representatives: Facebook, Buzzfeed, LOLCats) is a burden, a cacophony, the sirens enticing Ulysses toward destruction with a beautiful song.
Whenever anyone complains about the internet–the constant distractions, the oppressive connectivity, the instant gratification–I wonder to what degree they’re engaging in a kind of poorly aimed nostalgia. I remember the pre-internet era like this too, a time when friendships were stronger, books were shorter, concentration was easier.
Some of this is undoubtedly true. But it is also true that before the internet I was fifteen years old. The processing power of my desktop computer is not the only thing that has changed since then. Going to college, getting a job, moving to other countries, these things affect friendships, reading habits, ability to concentrate just as much as the internet does.
I wonder how many of the people congratulating Miller on leaving the internet are old enough to have had lives without it.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
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.
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.
It’s like the Malthusian trap works at the level of the individual. Something changes in your life and you find new habits, new energy. You think you’re riding an incline, productivity and happiness increasing upward toward some new you. But then, your personality and your habits and your vices adjust. The incline plateaus, and before you know it, you’re staring at same monsters you thought you had turned away from.
This week is the two-year anniversary of my arrival in Berlin. This is the fourth time I’ve moved to a new country, and every time, the same thing happens. The first few weeks I explore, I meet new people, I take in the new stuff and jettison the old. The first three months go by like a year, all the novelty and adjustment stretching each day into an accomplishment. Then it all speeds up. Six months go by, a year, and I look around and I find myself in the same life I had in the last country.
This isn’t actually so bad. I rather like my life, and I’ve been able to build social groups (thanks Facebook!), stay in touch with old friends (thanks Skype!) and entertain myself (thanks Grindr!) in places I wouldn’t have known if I didn’t constantly feel like a new me was just one more country away.
But still, Miller’s experience and mine make me wonder if we think about self-improvement the wrong way. Maybe it’s not about changing where we live or what we do or how much we internet. Maybe it’s about changing how we respond to what’s already around us.
Or maybe we’re proof that it doesn’t actually matter. Even the most profound changes in your external circumstances will only result in short-term changes before you adjust and invite the old you to return. Maybe that fifteen year old kid, the one with the lifelong friends, the stack of books books completed and absorbed, he’s still here, no matter how emphatically adulthood tries to ostracize him.
Strangely, I find all this somewhat comforting. If that kid isn’t going to make an exit anytime soon, maybe I still have time for a few more.