Writer Paul Miller comes back online after a year without the Internet
He was surprised at how isolating it was, but he became a better listener in real life
Miller: "We need to learn how to give each other a break"
We are using the Internet wrong. Smartphones turn people into horrible listeners. And cat videos aren’t as riveting as we think they are.
These are just some of the revelations writer Paul Miller had during a year of self-imposed exile from the Internet.
Miller came back online May 1 after giving up the Internet for a year and documenting his experiences for tech site The Verge. After a nerve-wracking start (including finding 22,000 e-mails in his inbox), Miller is settling comfortably back into the Web’s black hole of information and nonstop chatter.
We talked to Miller about what he learned on the other side, what’s changed online in the past year, and how his dream of being a cyborg won’t involve Google Glass.
What did you imagine going offline was going be like?
I thought it would be a ton of real practical hilarious hijinks. Oh, I couldn’t find this place on Google Maps, or I don’t have Wikipedia, or I have to send a real letter. I really thought that’s what the Internet was to me, mostly those little practical things.
What was the actual experience like?
Existential and introspective. I really learned a lot about myself. I did have a lot of free time, but a lot of it was loneliness and boredom in ways that I hadn’t really experienced before.
Early on that was a real inspiration. There were times I would realize my mind was in really cool places, having thought processes that are hard to have when you’re on the Internet and the same news and information cycle as everybody else. I read some books I would have never read, and wrote some stuff I would have never written.
I was a little bit out of the loop, in a good way, and I really enjoyed that. But it was really easy to sink in on myself and be withdrawn from people because it was just a little harder to get a hold of people, a little harder to make plans, and a little easier for me to just hide from the world and stay in my apartment and play video games.
Did you accomplish most of what you set out to do?
I had these goals for this year what I wanted to do. Read X number of books and write a first draft of my novel. This was my chance. I’m never going to have this much free time in my entire life, and so it was really hard at the end of the year to say I didn’t do all those things.
I’m probably a quarter of the way through the freshman syllabus of St. John’s College, a great books program I was copying. And I’m about halfway through the first draft of my novel. I wanted to do some real serious reporting, as well, but it proved really hard to do journalism without the Internet. Not only was it really hard for me, but it was really hard on my editors because they had to pick up the slack.
Did you ever ask people to Google things for you?
No. I’m sure I implied it at some point and got some information from the Internet. I know that happened sometimes. In my personal life I became very content with not knowing things. I was fine with missing out. There were a couple of things that were a little hard, like Felix Baumgartner’s jump from space. I saw it on CNN but they cut away during the actual jump.
Did your reaction change to people who still had the Internet?
I did become pretty judgmental. I didn’t envy them, but the most frustrating thing was people who couldn’t quite get out of their phone, or get out of their laptop. And in their opinion they’re listening, but I know they’re not really because I’ve experienced what full-on, true interaction is, and it’s different than someone glancing back and forth at their phone, or glancing back and forth at their e-mail. So that became really frustrating.
Now that I’m back on the Internet I really want to be the shining example of what it’s like to actually pay attention to somebody and put away your devices.
What is the first thing you did when you were back online?
I tweeted “jk” as a follow-up to my “GOODBYE INTERNET!!!!!” tweet. And I watched a video by my sister. She just started working as an art director and set designer, so I got to see her first music video project, which was really cool.
I just had so much trouble logging in to my different accounts, and then once I got on Facebook I didn’t know how to use Facebook. I almost had a panic attack that night. The Internet was real overstimulation, and for the first few days I really had a hard time using it. It just seemed like way too much, and it gave me real anxiety.
Someone on Twitter described me as their 80-year-old grandpa learning how to use the Internet. It was difficult, just technically, for me to use it well. But it was also stressful for me to use it because I had, like, three tabs open and I just didn’t know what was going on.
Did the Internet change while you were gone? Did you discover any new tools when you came back?
Vine and SnapChat. Vine is brand new and SnapChat was just sexting when I left the Internet. Now a lot of my friends and people are using it in this new way to communicate that isn’t this public blast of information on your Facebook wall or Twitter. It’s this very private communication with a few friends. I think that’s really cool because it uses that expressive creativity that would go into an Instagram or a tweet, but it’s one-to-one.
For the most part the Internet kind of disappointed me. I thought there’d be some fundamental, cool shift. Everything feels the same to me.