I was wrong.
One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was "corrupting my soul."
It's a been a year now since I "surfed the web" or "checked my email" or "liked" anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I've managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I'm internet free.
And now 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.
But instead it's 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I'm watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn't want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.
I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I'd used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I'd gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn't know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. "Real life," perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.
My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I'd outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I'd find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.
My goal would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years
But for some reason, The Verge wanted to pay me to leave the internet. I could stay in New York and share my findings with the world, beam missives about my internet-free life to the citizens of the internet I'd left behind, sprinkle wisdom on them from my high tower.
My goal, as a technology writer, would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it "at a distance." I wouldn't just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.
A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York's Citi Field to learn from the world's most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
"It's reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity," said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into "click vegetables."
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to "stop and smell the flowers."
This was going to be amazing.
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back.
I was a little bored, a little lonely, but I found it a wonderful change of pace. I wrote in August, "It's the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others." I was pretty sure I had it all figured out, and told everyone as much.
As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I'm really enthralled, a few hundred.
I learned to appreciate an idea that can't be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.
Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn't have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life. My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I'm half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I'm less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
Additionally, and I don't know what this has to do with anything, but I cried during Les Miserables.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
When I left the internet I expected my journal entries to be something like, "I used a paper map today and it was hilarious!" or "Paper books? What are these!?" or "Does anyone have an offline copy of Wikipedia I can borrow?" That didn't happen.
For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don't comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.
In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don't need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.
But one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can't tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It's something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.
In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: "Thank you for leaving the internet." Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.
But then I felt bad, because I never wrote back.
And then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
By late 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.
A year in, I don't ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don't go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
So the moral choices aren't very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren't hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it's certainly harder to find people. It's harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It's easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone's house. Not that these obstacles can't be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn't last.
It's hard to say exactly what changed. 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.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a "Facebook friend," but I can tell you that a "Facebook friend" is better than nothing.
My best long-distance friend, one I'd talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven't spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.
I fell out of sync with the flow of life.
there's a lot of "reality" in the virtual, and a lot of "virtual" in our reality
This March I went to, ironically, a conference in New York called "Theorizing the Web." It was full of post-grad types presenting complicated papers about the definition of reality and what feminism looks like in a post-digital age, and things like that. At first I was a little smug, because I felt like they were dealing with mere theories, theories that assumed the internet was in everything, while I myself was experiencing a life apart.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there's a lot of "reality" in the virtual, and a lot of "virtual" in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we're still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we're frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: "Will I tweet about this when I get back?"
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the "real" Paul and get in touch with the "real" world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn't different without the internet, just that it wasn't real life.
A couple weeks ago I was in Colorado to see my brother before he deployed to Qatar with the Air Force. He has a new baby, a five-month-old chubster named Kacia, who I'd only seen in photos mercifully snail mailed by my sister-in-law.
I got to spend one day with my brother, and the next morning I went with him to the airport. I watched dumbfounded as he kissed his wife and kids goodbye. It didn't seem fair that he should have to go. He's a hero to these kids, and I hated for them to lose him for six months.
My coworkers Jordan and Stephen met me in Colorado to embark on a road trip back to New York. The idea was to wrap up my year with a little documentary, and spend the hours in the car coming to terms with what had just happened and what might come next.
I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I'd failed offline
Before we left, I spent a little more time with the kids, doing my best to be a help to my sister-in-law, doing my best to be a super uncle. And then we had to go.
On the road, Jordan and Stephen asked me questions about myself. "Do you think you're too hard on yourself?" Yes. "Was this year successful?" No. "What do you want to do when you get back on the internet?" I want to do things for other people.
We stopped in Huntington, West Virginia to meet a hero of mine, Polygon's Justin McElroy. I met with Nathan Jurgenson in Washington DC. I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I'd failed offline. I asked for tips.
What I do know is that I can't blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I'll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won't, to be honest. But at least I'll know that it's not the internet's fault. I'll know who's responsible, and who can fix it.
Late Tuesday night, the last night of the trip, we stopped across the river from NY to get "the shot" from New Jersey of the Manhattan skyline. It was a cold, clear night, and I leaned against the rickety riverside railing and tried to strike a casual pose for the camera. I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.
In two weeks I'd be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.
I'd read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I'd begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was "doing to me," so I could fight back. But the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
the internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other
My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She'd never heard of "the internet," but she's huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she'd wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
"I thought it was because you didn't want to," she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
"I spent a year without using any internet," I told her. "But now I'm coming back and I can Skype with you again."
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won't have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I'll be connected.
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