The Problem with 'Quitting' the Internet

We've all thought it, right? We've thrown up our hands, despite the carpal tunnel; we've set our laptops to sleep; we've vowed to take a day off, to stop looking at the little screen, to ignore the beeps and groans and vibratory sensations emanating from our technological friends.

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We've all thought it, right? We've thrown up our hands, despite the carpal tunnel; we've set our laptops to sleep; we've vowed to take a day off, to stop looking at the little screen, to ignore the beeps and groans and vibratory sensations emanating from our technological friends. We've wondered what we're becoming, these technologically addicted monsters we now are, and what people will think of our addled brains and strange habits and dry, bleary eyes 50 or 100 years from now. We say "Can't take it!!! Going offline for a while" on our variety of social media, and then we stay up late reading peoples' responses. Yet a day later, maybe hours, maybe minutes, we go back to the computer and we log on and we check our email and google "What is the Internet doing to my brain?" and update our Facebook and Twitter pages with the notation, "Not done here yet." Maybe we wanted to give it up and couldn't; maybe we were just threatening it for attention. Maybe we just want to see if we can. But we never do.

Except, there's a guy who is. He's giving up the Internet for a year. 12 months. A bunch of days that we'd need the Internet to properly calculate (there are calculators IRL?) His name is Paul Miller and he is a better man than we are (we are not a man), today announcing his endeavor on The Verge. Yes, it is a website. Here's what Miller has to say for himself:

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.

Hang on there for a minute. Some of us are people without the luxury of leaving the Internet, of course, seeing as how it is our work. And for others, it may be our personal lives as well. (Online dating? Second Life? Do people still do that anymore?) But let's say that it wasn't, or that we didn't care. Would we leave the Internet? What could be gained?

Miller continues:

Depending on your perspective, you might be completely shocked that I'd even attempt such a thing, or you might be completely unimpressed. For me personally, the decision felt like a big, crazy idea at first, and now it's started to seem a perfectly natural evolution of my life with technology....

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.

Miller believes, as one would have to undertake such a thing, that leaving the Internet will make him better, although he fears, worst case scenario, that it might not, and "a year from now I'll be found wandering in the woods somewhere, muttering URLs to myself." Of course, there are bigger questions here, like the assumption that the Internet doesn't belong in certain places. Perhaps skyscrapers don't belong in certain places, but if you work for a company or have friends or family who live in a skyscraper, you need to visit them occasionally. You could apply this to anything created by humans—yes, humans did create this techno-beast, we made it for ourselves—that then, maybe, sort of starts to freak us out, so dependent upon it we have become, and so we shun it. But we're in a post-Internet time here. Backtracking into a moment when we didn't have it isn't exactly going to help us learn to use it better.

As for the rules of giving up the Internet, Miller won't browse the Web, ask someone to browse the Web, surf the Internet "over someone's shoulder," use Netflix streams, even someone else's, sync his devices, manage bank accounts, have Wi-Fi on, and even will eliminate text messaging, or attempt to. "To help lower my temptations, I've switched to a dumbphone." Do you feel anxious yet? He'll also "provide written text, share photos physically, and make video appearances" but he won't upload anything himself. Legitimately old-timey. And he won't have "comments to read, retweets to bask in, or forums to troll. I'll be all alone with my thoughts, and for all I'll know, I may be forgotten," he writes. For a year. A lifetime. Do you remember where you were a year ago? If it wasn't on the Internet, who are you, even? Miller's having one last Internet orgy before he closes out of his preferred Web browser, and so you can catch him at any number of places, including his Reddit AMA and on his Twitter. And on the comments of his Goodbye Internet post, which has gotten hundreds of responses and goodness knows how many page views. Ironically, leaving the Internet is a huge way to be ON the Internet. Which surely someone was aware of in the lead-up to this whole affair, regardless of how authentically minded Miller is. 

But why does this "leaving the Internet" shtick sound familiar? Oh, perhaps because it has been attempted it before. In April 2010, James Sturm announced in a blog post on Slate that he would be leaving the Internet to do, essentially, more "life" things. He wanted to do it for a year; instead, he settled on four months. What's weird with all of this, though, and with what Miller purports to do, is that they're not quitting writing, so their words end up on the Internet, albeit not loaded by themselves—it's almost like they haven't quit the Internet at all, at least not to the folks reading them. In Sturm's two-week dispatch from his Internet-free life, he wrote:

I have now been offline for two weeks. It's been unusually warm here in Vermont. Today it was in the 80s; already it feels like summer. In two weeks, two seasons have passed: mud season and spring. I'm not sure if I am more disoriented by the weather or my absence from the Internet.

What happened when he went off the Internet? Nothing much. He didn't suddenly get deluged with phone calls or faxes. Certainly, there must have been fewer kitten videos to experience. Yet things were still complicated. On the plus side, he drew more, and he had a longer attention span (for drawing and for writing about the weather, it seems). Attention spans on the Internet, it bears mentioning, are not always a positive. He got some letters by hand, and read them. In his third-week dispatch, he writes, "so far the biggest surprise has been how uneventful it is." He points out as a troubling aspect, the inability to Google. By his sixth entry, after two months, he'd cheated. Cheated on the Internet, cheated on all of us! It's only fair, because life without the Internet is sort of... boring.
Of course, doing anything as a self-imposed test to see if you can, for no significant health or personal reason, and also, of course, to have something to write about, is about as meta as the Internet itself. It's the perfect of-this-time pageview trolling-type post: Troll the entire Internet, why don't you? 
The question that's most interesting to me with regard to going off the Internet is whether or not Miller can remain relevant to the rest of us on the Internet, while he's off of it. It's sort of like writing about a TV show when you're no longer actually watching episodes. And it grows progressively less and less interesting to get dispatches from someone regarding their non-Internet life when you yourself are living life very differently and, if given the choice of Internet or no Internet, would always pick Internet. After all, it's where the best stuff is! Maybe the deep inherent problem with the Internet is that you can't, really, quit the Internet. You can only stay off it for a time, and in coming back, you'll be the bicycle-riding kid you used to be, except everyone else may be on to Segways at that point, or scooters, or fancy little hybrid vehicles that float in the air. Alas, after the initial page view and Twitter follower boost, you've succeeded only in making yourself that much more irrelevant—something that doesn't play all that well on the Internet. And you're missing all the great kitten videos.
This is not to say that we don't wish Miller luck. We'd say keep us posted, but we hate talking on the phone.

Image via Shutterstock by Haru. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.