On Paul Miller's Year Offline

A couple of days ago was Paul Miller's first day back on the Internet after being off it for one whole year.  Miller is a tech writer and senior editor at a hip web site called The Verge (which I'd only just barely heard of and purports to cover "the intersection of tech, science, arts, and culture.").  A year ago he was fed up and decided to quit, and quit the internet, but his boss said don't quit your job too, just go offline, and write for us about what it's like being offline.

The other day he wrote a piece summing it all up.  It's pretty interesting, though not, IMHO, fascinating. There's a difference. But if you find the idea interesting, I'd recommend reading the article, and also, if you're a meta type, or a film/media type, watching at least the first 5 minutes of the 15-minute mini-doc about his experience (at the top of the page).

Here's why:  The article goes into the real interesting depths of what he thinks he learned and gained and lost. That's the real content.  But, the video says less about that and more about The Verge, and about the current state of the craft of lifestyle web minidocs, and hipster-nerddom fashion, and video marketing. From the shot of his coffee table with the stack of stuff so perfectly placed (including "Eloquent Javascript", and a copy of "Infinite Jest" (of course) on his bookshelf in the background) to the artfully colorgraded cutaways of him punching away at his keyboard in the hip cubeland at his office, the video is really more of a commercial for The Verge, and for the stunt that Miller pulled, rather than a real substantive look at the ideas and results of the stunt.  It's moody, it's full of beautiful landscape shots out car windows, and weirdly wonderful blurry closeup beauty shots of him, even though he's kind of an average-looking, pudgy dorkboy hipster that would normally not be worth taking photos of.  It's backed with that weird moody jangly soundtrack music that everybody seems into using these days that sort of says "this is kinda vaguely sad but means basically nothing" and sounds vaguely like Sigur Ros (and maybe it is, there's no credit for the music anywhere I could find). So, because it's not really giving much content, you can get the formal lesson I'm talking about from just watching the first 5 minutes or so.  However, again, the text is much more informative about the topic - staying off the internet.

Now here are some of my thoughts about Miller's actual article and year offline:

  • A lot things he writes about I am totally on board with. Most importantly, he realized that a lot of his problems or flaws in his personality or life were not caused by him being on the Internet. He didn't fix them just by going offline. He was and is still a depressed, kind of unsatisfied, restless 20-something, adrift in the modern world.
  • Still, I would argue that some of his problems ARE indirectly and partially a result of the Internet - not so much him being on it, but the whole society being on it. These things stack up and are compounded by the whole culture, so just taking himself off it doesn't fix it.
  • And yet, there's a lot of good things in the Internet, especially about connectedness, that he observes and that I agree with.
  • All in all, I take the stunt and his writing to have one central lesson: You don't fix things by radical and sudden cold-turkey removals of one narrow aspect of your life. Moderation in all things, as some Greek philosophers once said. If you think you need to totally quit the Internet, you probably don't. If you think you don't need to quit the Internet, you probably need to at least reduce your use of it to some degree. And you probably have other things to work on too.
  • Miller's only 27! So young.  When the web began, he was about 7 years old. He likely doesn't remember a time when there was no Internet. I put to you that that is one of the most important things to think about regarding his stunt - he didn't "have a real life", because he had never had one (To some extent - though I agree with him that the Internet IS part of our real lives, and our life starts getting "unreal" when we forcibly remove ourselves from it, but that's only because we're part of a whole society that's on it, as I said above.  I think that what we really mean when we say "unreal" is that we feel our life has lost its balance - which gets back to moderation). On the other hand, if you're about my age, you'd lived til you were about the age he is now before the Internet began to completely take over all of life. When I was 27, there was no Google, people were just barely starting to buy stuff online, almost nobody had a blog and nobody called them blogs, there was no "social networking" other than the primitive bulletin boards and IRC chat rooms that a few geeks used. We'd lived somewhat full, interesting lives without ever "checking in" or "tweeting" or "yelping" or snapping any Instagrams. EVER.(and yet, also, we were still fucked up people, for other reasons.)
  • Depression and the ennui of modern life and the problem of the many ways in which you can fail at being a decent and good human is much deeper than the specifics of which alienating technology is running our lives. People wrote disturbed diatribes about the pernicious effects of television 50 years ago. It's all part of a general, steady trend that's much bigger than "the Internet".

Well, that's about it. I gotta get off my blog and go run some errands in "the real world".