Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Man’s Search for Offline Meaning

Last week technology writer Paul Miller returned to the internet after an entire year offline, an experiment to see how unplugging would affect his productivity and quality of life. At the outset, he believed not only that the internet was making him unproductive, but that “it lacked meaning. I thought it was ‘corrupting my soul.’” A year later, what did he conclude? “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.Supposed to, but there was a problem: “I was wrong.”

At 26, Miller had used the internet “constantly,” he says, from the age of 12, and made a living from it since he was 14. As a result, “I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life.” With the backing of his employer, he decided, with no small degree of eager anticipation, to unplug, “find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.”

Everything began promisingly on May 1, 2012. He got outside to play Frisbee, take bike rides, meet with people in person. He pumped out essays and wrote half a novel. He lost 15 pounds effortlessly and bought new clothes. His attention span swelled. He interacted better with people. He lived in the moment. He got so in touch with his humanity that he cried during Les Miserables. He had indeed discovered the real Paul.

And then it all came undone. By the end of 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.

He stopped going out. His bike gathered dust. The couch became his new favorite place, and thumbing mindlessly through video games and passively absorbing audiobooks became his new distractions.

What happened? Why the backsliding? “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.”

His experiment shows the pitfall of believing that some of the weaknesses of our nature can be magically wiped away by going cold turkey on technological distractions. I keep telling myself, for example, that getting off Facebook will somehow free me like Tim Robbins escaping Shawshank and open up whole new vistas of self-actualization. But online or off, bad habits and weak will power aren’t resolved only by a change of scenery. “Moral choices aren't very different without the internet,” Miller discovered. Too right.

Though modern technology is often criticized for contributing to the erosion of our relationships, Miller also missed the interconnectedness that only the internet can provide: “I knew the internet was where I belonged… The internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.”

Well, it’s where his like-minded community is, and that’s both a social positive and a time-wasting negative. The answer to avoiding the latter doesn’t lie in rejecting the internet in toto; moderation in all things, as Aristotle cautioned. Instead, to make the most of our time, to become “more real” and “more perfect,” as Miller put it, we must embrace the ongoing process of choosing only the productive, useful aspects of our online (and offline) lives, and disciplining ourselves to commit to that. The answer lies within us, as it always does.

Miller wrote that he felt like a failure getting back online. But the truth is, he came away from the experiment with an insight that may help him and many of his readers: “I can't blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems.” As he goes forward, he realizes he may stumble again with what he called “the worst sides” of himself. “But at least I’ll know,” he wrote, “that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who's responsible, and who can fix it.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 5/6/13)