Man Leaves Internet; Is Still Himself

That headline is basically the summation from Paul Miller, who spent a year offline (on purpose, he wasn’t in jail or anything) and has now posted an article to tell folks what he learned about himself in the process. He’d hoped that being offline would help him get in touch with the “real” him; he found out basically that he was pretty much the same person online and offline. Being off the Internet didn’t make him into a better or purer person, it just made him a dude who didn’t go online.

And, well. Yes. Not terribly surprised about that. The online world can be distracting and alienating, but it is often so because people are often inclined to be distracted and alienated. If you’re one of those people, it doesn’t matter where you go or what you do, you’ll still be inclined toward distraction and alienation. You could be in a monastery on the slopes of the Himalayas and get distracted by the snowflakes. No satori for you! On the other hand, dude, snowflakes.

That said, I’ll note that I do think it’s fine to get away from the Internet from time to time, to break some default patterns and to just remind one’s self that there are other things one can do with one’s time than just stare into a screen all the time. I took advantage of being on a cruise earlier this year to remove myself entirely from the Internet for a whole week, which was the longest time that I had done that in years. It was pretty great, actually. And when I got back I had changed my online behavior a little bit, which I thought was beneficial as well. On the other hand, I wouldn’t expect at this late date that being away from the online world would change me in any significant way.

I’ll tell you a story. In 1995 — before this whole Internet thing really took off — I went on my honeymoon, and for the entire honeymoon, I did not look at a newspaper or magazine, because, you know, I wanted to focus on this whole honeymoon thing, not what was going on with the rest of the world. And it was great. And on the plane ride back, the dude in the seat in front of me was reading a newspaper and I put a crick in my neck craning to try to read it. Which amused my wife. She had no illusions as to who I was, even then. These days it’s the Internet rather than newspapers/magazines (mostly), but it’s still the same dynamic. I’m still me.

So, again, not entirely surprised by Miller’s epiphany about himself and the Internet. In the end, the Internet is an external thing. If Miller wanted to get in touch with his “real” self, that’s got to be an internal thing, I think.

42 Comments on “Man Leaves Internet; Is Still Himself”

  1. My aunt has a wonderful story about going “off-line” and what she learned:

    Back in the summer of ’67 she had just had a whole lot of stressful stuff and needed to get away for a while. So she went off to a vacation cottage and spent the week completely incommunicado. On the drive home, she turned on the radio and heard the announcer say, “Ceasefire has been declared and this seems to be the conclusion of what history will call The SIx Days War.” And she realized that the world managed to have an entire war without her knowing a thing about it. And they had fixed it all just fine without her. So maybe she didn’t need to be concerned about everything happening everywhere.

  2. @Cibulskis
    Why not read the very nicely-penned article by Miller and find out?

  3. No. There is something intrinsically wrong about going online to read about a man who went offline.

  4. @Greg, maybe you could have saved him a year, but who’s to say he didn’t in some small way already know what he was going to find? Some things have more value as events we can point to when our self-assurance mode isn’t working.

  5. It’s hard to shut down one’s own internal dialogue. Be it TV, the internet, the newspaper, the radio – it is becoming harder and harder for a person to live in the present in our society. So much noise, so much distraction, so much stimuli, so little content.

  6. There was a student documentary from four years back called Disconnected about three students who couldn’t use computers for a month. It was interesting to see them writing their papers with a typewriter and trying to navigate through modern academia without an online presence. (Things have changed a lot since I was in college.) When they finally got back online, however, there wasn’t the sort of rapturous moment you might expect from someone getting an online fix for the first time in a month.

    I think our lives are usually pretty consistent and that we just adapt to the conditions that present themselves.

  7. The online world isn’t “worse” than the offline in any way, though it is almost entirely second-hand information as opposed to primary experience, which is a different concern.

    That sounded more pompous than intended.

  8. I think it’s always good to take time to re-consider what we spend our time and attention on. The Internet itself is neutral. It is what we choose to do on the Internet that makes a difference.

  9. An old teacher once said,
    “Good Snowflake!”
    “It doesn’t fall in any other place.”

    (Yes, that’s a snow koan. Please don’t hurt me.)

  10. The one thing I’ve noted about computers and the internet is people appear to exhibit less patience with stuff. I can see that. On the other hand, I don’t think computers and the internet are contributing to the creation of some strange strain of humanity.

    Patience seems to be inversely proportional to the sophistication of the society one inhabits. Thus, the greater the sophistication of ones society, the correspondingly lesser degree of patience. Technology contributes to society’s sophistication in that it delivers greater amounts of information more quickly. I mean, society isn’t ‘happenin” unless it’s ‘in the know’.

    And for what it’s worth, reality TV hasn’t helped that much. I need to get back to meditating.

  11. The Internet itself is neutral. It is what we choose to do on the Internet that makes a difference.


    One of the things I’ve gotten Tired Of is the distinction between ‘the internet’ and ‘real life,’ as if things that happen online are less real than things that happen offline.

    There’s a bit of a teary moment in Miller’s story, where he’s talking to his niece about why he hasn’t skyped with her lately and she thinks it’s because he didn’t want to talk to her. That child has probably been videoconferencing with family for as long as she’s been able to speak. She didn’t grow up with this idea that her relationship with her grandparents, uncles etc is any less ‘real’ for happening on the internet.

    The internet is ‘real life.’ It’s a means of communicating with real people. So while it’s good to occasionally check in with ourselves to make sure we’re spending our time and energy on people and things that actually matter to us, it’s a mistake to think that the people we are online are any less ‘real’ or any less ‘us’ than the people we are offline.

    It was refreshing to read a take on unplugging that acknowledges that, instead of coming to a simple, sugary conclusion about how unplugging leads to a more authentic life.

  12. What is self-evident to one person sometimes requires a trial for another. He thought the internet was was doing bad things to him, was determined to prove it, and the experience forced him to examine himself and discover that his baggage was actually his own. A lot of people who start out knowing the internet is neutral will go their whole lives not confronting their own weaknesses, so I’ll tip my hat in his direction for that.

  13. On the internet, one is only as ‘real’ as one is willing. There are plenty of people who use it as a means of re-inventing themselves or embracing parts of themselves that under normal circumstances would be suppressed or given passing regard. Anonymity or false identity are still easily accomplished on the internet. Unlike the real world, the internet provides a near effortless means of attaining that. It needs bearing in mind.

  14. Well, I usually end up offline whenever I am on vacation. I don’t think it makes me particularly deep or anything–more like, in desperate need of cramming once I get back to a computer. I do, however (as a hater/abstainer of social media), enjoy the shit out of not having to hear about how super awesome Facebook and Twitter are and how I should totally be using them 24-7 for days on end. That is really nice.

  15. One is only as connected as one chooses to be. I choose to do other things than be connected during most of my non-work time, and that makes me happy: music or audio book at the car or gym, crafts or puzzles in the evenings. Not “hard”, as such, but it does take a little effort. Hubby, on the other hand, goes through serious withdrawals if he’s away from computer, iPad, or phone for more than an hour – your mileage may vary.

  16. Martin: No matter where you go, there you are.

    In my experience, nothing is ever what it seems to be, but everything is exactly what it is

  17. slightly more stressful when you’re offline because your computer dies on you, I’d say :-P

  18. I went on vacation a few years ago and was instructed to not bring my laptop. I climbed a mountain, went snorkeling, and met some interesting people. It was awful.

  19. Wow. Just wow (no, not World of Warcraft – more GW2 & MH at the mo :).
    As a lifelong IT geek (probably from age 13 as far as PCs go – 35 years of geekdom & going strong! :), I’m in awe of this guy. He must have spent a year downloading porn, just so he could go a year without getting it online lol! Was he allowed to use a PC or anything?

    Anyway, you are who you are & Planescape:Torment taught us in no uncertain terms what can change the measure of man >8^D.

    I’ve come to believe that people rarely change (short of a major life-altering event or brain damage), so this comes as no surprise. As you stated John, people will channel their personalities/obsessions/distractions into anything & everything they can find, boy do I know it!
    If this guy had’ve gone to live on a deserted island Survivor style this may have been more of a story, heh.

  20. @Bearpaw: Yeah, and there’s snow koan back. (Pulls hat down over face and gets very quiet…)

  21. @ gleonguerrero
    I’ve found that being more extroverted online has gradually resulted in me being more extroverted in meatspace.

    @ M.A.
    *slow clap*

  22. There are several places that I go with my family where we have no access to the internet at all – camping trips in the BCWA, a yearly family reunion at a ramshackle lodge on the Gunflint Trail and a totally-off-the-grid shack in the woods that we co-own with a couple other families. I do notice that as a family we are much more responsive to one another, and far less distractible, so I treasure it.

    For myself, the internet distracts the spit out of me. I have to disable the dang thing for five hours a day just to make sure I get anything done. But I am a distractible person by nature. The internet is just the perfect drug for a brain like mine.

  23. Gulliver,
    I really can’t say if the internet has changed my personality. I know I’m more impatient than before the days of the internet, but whether it’s made me more or less social is a toss up. What the internet has done for me is open communication to an enormous degree. I mean, hey, Iook where we’re posting right now: on some excellent author’s blog site. That’s like meeting Scalzi at a bookstore and chatting with him among a group of 20-200 people. Okay, not that intimate, but hey we’re doing it every day, more or less.

    Quite a few years back I actually went to Russia for two weeks due to making a bunch of friends from there over a number of years. It was an excellent trip and ended up a real treat to finally meet them all in the flesh. It’s been over a decade now and I’m still in contact with several of them. In fact, I do video skype to catch up on old times and stuff.

  24. I once took a week off from reading. No books, cereal boxes, nothing.
    Got a bit twitchy and emerged entirely satisfied that I never need repeat the experiment.

  25. Buckaroo Banzai said it best: “No matter where you go, there you are.”

  26. gleonguerrero said: “On the internet, one is only as ‘real’ as one is willing. There are plenty of people who use it as a means of re-inventing themselves or embracing parts of themselves that under normal circumstances would be suppressed or given passing regard. Anonymity or false identity are still easily accomplished on the internet. Unlike the real world, the internet provides a near effortless means of attaining that. It needs bearing in mind.”

    Yes, but it’s just as exhausting to keep up a version of you that isn’t actually you for a long period of time, so most people don’t.

  27. @ gleonguerrero

    I’ve always been pretty social. But I used to be a lot more reserved in my demeanor and less engaging. Whether this is an improvement may be a matter for debate :-?

  28. I had to take a class once where the teacher was anti-progress/anti-technology and made everyone avoid anything modern (TV, cell phones, Internet, the entire works) for 24 hours and write about the “experience”.

    I immediately realized it was impossible for me to capitulate and write about the epiphany she wanted us to all have and spent the entire paper mocking the entire idea of giving up modern technology and advancements (especially since she wanted the paper typed on a computer!), although I did participate as much as possible (I didn’t take out my anti-lock brakes and seatbelts or anything, but I turned the phone off and didn’t watch TV).

    At the time, I had very recently had a new surgery on my shoulder to avoid losing the use of my arm, so I may have been a little more bitter than was healthy.

  29. A few years ago I was at the Memphis airport talking to a fellow traveler. I told him I had forgotten to bring my cell phone, but that wasn’t a big problem as I was only going to be gone for 4 days. I felt a tug on my arm and a teenager was looking at me with great consternation. He said in an absolutely desolated tone, “Dude, what are you gonna do!”. He just could not imagine life without a cell phone for 4 days.

  30. Maybe next year he’ll try a year without eating food grown by someone else and become a hunter/gatherer.

  31. Zero Angel, did your teacher exempt landline phones from the prohibition, or were you required to unplug those as well? Just curious, since you said cellphones specifically, and wondering if there was a bit of a blind spot there.

    If I were given that sort of assignment, it would result in a day very much like my entire life 20 years ago. I’ve never been much of a TV-watcher, and at that time I had no TV, nor a computer either because I was a late adopter on that technology. I’d have spent most of the day reading books — the hard-copy kind.

    Even today, I tend to drop offline completely when I’m on the road (which is about 1 weekend in 3) because I just don’t have the time for it. There have been some occasions when I felt that this (mostly voluntary) separation was a good thing, that I needed a break. But other times, it’s just a neutral thing that happens because I’m being busy with other stuff.

  32. Sounds like this guy should have also given up Xbox.

    Oddly, the place I’m most likely to be offline is at science fiction conventions. I don’t need my futuristic planet-spanning technology when there’s books and interesting people to hang out with. Occasionally, I text someone so we can meet up for dinner, but we could do that with room phones and message boards like in the olden days. Last year at Worldcon, there were places in the bowels of the con that I couldn’t get a signal anyway, so whatevs. I had the masquerade and the Hugos and panels and parties. And the internet was right where I left it when I got back.

    But, most of my friends are from the internet, going back to the late 1980’s, even before the web. And I mean actual friends, like staying at their house on vacation and going to their weddings. I’ll be offline Monday b/c I’m meeting up with a couple of them in meatspace. And then we’ll blog about it.

  33. I am very thankful for my futuristic planet-spanning technology when there are interesting people to hang out with. I’m hearing-impaired. Lip-reading unfamiliar people all day at a convention regularly leaves me in tears just from the stress and intense work of it. Group conversations, with witty banter and great collaboration, are incredibly difficult to follow, and it’s hard to bring oneself to ask for repeats every five seconds, as it does break the flow.

    Online, I can be part of group conversation again. The internet has given me back part of what I lost when my hearing took a major dive in my twenties.

    Leaving the internet means going back to that world where people decide I’m stupid because I ask them to repeat something, so they dumb it down for me and then mostly talk to other people. Or where I’m tired and don’t have the heart to ask for another repeat, so I sit there and watch people having what is probably a pretty good conversation, but I’ll never know.

    Giving up the internet probably wouldn’t make me find myself, but it would make me lose a significant number of other people. Most people who aren’t hearing-impaired don’t think about what the net does in terms of accessibility.

  34. not really that specific to going offline, but i find this whole western find-yourself individualism-both-in-denial-and-extreme-ambivalence shit quite annoying and well, pretty useless. plus, well, a buddhist or neuroscientist might ask what this so-called sslf is actually about.
    oh, and to somewhat paraphrase greg egan in distress, i don’t see why cutting my frontal lobes out of the equation and give you some raw unadultered limbic system is any more authentic.

    for actual self-actualization, i guess paying attention to the way you interact is much more important; that might mean some time offline or focusing on other means of communication, but in itself, abstaining from the internet is just another form of mortification of the flesh. and if you’re thus religiously inclined, it might help to look at the religious traditions to see how they handle that, e.g. christianity

    or the middle way of buddhism, where the buddha was seen as something of traitor by the more hardcore ascetics.

  35. Just spent a month in China, much of it in places with very limited internet. Even in the cities which had it, the only cost-effective way to check email was to get access to a free wifi about once or twice a day (at my hotel, if they offered it, or a westernized coffeeshop). And a lot of places that thought they’d set up a functioning wifi had not, in fact, set up a functioning wifi, so I experienced a month more or less offline.

    It didn’t make me feel like a different person. However, it did make me realize that a lot of the value of the Internet comes from its sheer ubiquity on everyone’s tablet or smart phone. Email all day long is really different from email once a day or once every two or three days. Email once a day is kind of like snailmail: you just got the mail for the day and that was the day’s mail – any further information will come tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Internet once a day feels like going to the library: here’s where all the information is, and once you leave this building, you leave it behind.

    In places with good internet, you can plan the day in real time: any information you want, you can get pretty quickly. In places without it, just-in-time info is not an option, and you have to prepare and preplan everything.

    It really made me realize how much the Internet changes the world — and how much change is still going to happen in the future as it spreads.

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