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 But it was really easy to sink in on myself and be withdrawn from people because it was just a little harder to get a hold of people, a little harder to make plans, and a little easier for me to just hide from the world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.
And to be honest, and I don’t know if I’m just being a snob, but I’m not as entranced by funny cat videos anymore. I really like vacuum cat and my buddy has a blog, didntmeantopost.tumblr.com, and I really like his selective picks of GIFs. But for the most part I’m just not that entranced by it at all.
Will old habits come back over time?
To be honest, I already feel like I’m using the Internet a little too much or the wrong way. I’m just a blob existing on the Internet instead of getting into the Internet, using it as a really good tool, and then putting it away so I can focus on writing or something.
I haven’t really been able to listen to music. I haven’t done any actual reading. I’m finding lots of articles that I pin so I can read them later, but I’m not actually reading any of it. I don’t want to be that. I still get my newspaper that got me through this whole year news-wise, and I haven’t had any time to read those or The New Yorker.
It’s very worrisome, and I really hope I can slow it down soon and find a new happy medium.
Do you plan on using the Internet differently now that you’re back?
I want to prioritize family and friends, and productivity and learning, over just generally consuming and being entertained. And that takes work because the Internet is so happy to entertain you. I want to find a way to use the Internet in that way, but unfortunately I’m really out of practice, so I kind of have to learn it from scratch. I don’t think I got better at using the Internet by not using it.
There’s a Wired post that [Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab] wrote a long time ago about how surfing the Internet was a fad and after a while we would all get back to work. The Internet would be super utilitarian – we’d get what we need then we could be productive and do actual stuff.
But surfing the Internet was not a fad. That is the primary way we use it, and it’s rarely productive. I spent a couple of hours last night looking for a new e-mail client, looking for a way how to program, looking for an app to teach me Latin. Instead of working on my e-mail, learning how to program or learning Latin.
The Internet wants to be surfed. It takes a proactive approach to actually be a productive person.
Do you have any plans to take periodic breaks in the future?
We need to learn how to give each other a break and not always expect immediate responses, to be OK with this new wave of people who only check their e-mail twice a day.
I hope I get the permission from people – and maybe I have this because I’m that guy who left the Internet – so I can just disconnect for a weekend. It will be hard because I will want to tweet all the time. I’m not going to take some grandiose Internet break again, but I want to be able to do it for a day or two.
How do you see Google Glass impacting how we use the Internet?
I am such a nerd and I want to be a cyborg, and I want a computer on my head and always connected to me in a way. But wearable computing in the ‘90s was about augmenting a human and making them more powerful in a way. Helping memory, taking notes on conversations and maybe recognizing faces and helping you navigate.
Google Glass is about taking everything in your world and uploading it to Google. It’s about using the Internet more, and it’s about pulling more parts of your life into the Internet. So instead of using the Internet as a utility to make your life richer and be less interrupted, it’s interrupting your life more to make the Internet richer with all the stuff from you life.
Did you have any surprising reactions?
One of my favorite letters I got was from a guy who’s diagnosed with Aspergers and engaged. He says his fiancée loves him and knows that’s just him. But based on something I wrote – and I don’t know what – he just decided to try a little harder to talk to her and be more open with her and she really appreciated it.
That was a really cool letter to get because I think you just assume this is how you’re going to use the Internet, this is how things are. And just by questioning it a little bit, questioning who you are and how you are and what technology is and fighting back against it, just a little bit, you can change that. I just loved that letter.