Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Feeling Good About Getting Back Online

Paul Miller, technology writer for The Verge, has just ended a year of unbroken and self-imposed offlining. It was an experiment which he had hoped would restore his sanity. "I'd find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me," he explains, looking back.

When I first wrote about offlining, in February 2011, I was trying to get a sense of how prevalent the desire to spend time away from the web was becoming. This developed into a feature for the UK's Prospect magazine in which I interviewed Oliver Burkeman about people's self-management of their Internet use.

Burkeman told me how he positioned the offlining issue: "I've always thought that the really important point when it comes to information overload that it's not the amount of time that you spend connected that matters, but the degree to which you remain in control."

Paul Miller's personal experiment is interesting partly because of its ambition and partly because of what it says about precisely the issue raised by Burkeman: control. Miller's offlining wasn't about discovering whether spending Sundays without the web or limiting one's Internet access helped a person think more clearly now and again. Really he was asking two questions. The first was, "Can I lead a modern life without the web?" The second, simply, "Is it better that way?"

"Can I lead a modern life without the web? Is it better that way?"

I and others who followed Paul's musings on the offline got great insight into how the pace and substance of our contemporary lives were so enmeshed with digital technologies. Paul wrote about how he digested news stories, what the impact was on his creativity and, touchingly, how lonely life (with or without the web) can be.

Now that Paul is back online, his reflections have produced some interesting conclusions. For one thing, he has been able to process why the first few months of his offline odyssey felt great before the euphoria gave way to a crippling sense of being fallible.

"I guess those first months felt so good," he writes, "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."

Without the novelty of being a non-Internet person and instead just being a person, Paul's personality began to speak for itself. His attention span grew and he became aware of an opportunity to correct certain character traits the web had encouraged in him, but in other ways a lack of Internet access made his world intractable and dull: "I fell out of sync with the flow of life," he remarks today.

Most of all he realised it was deeply problematic to be cut off from the ways we all do much of our communicating and socialising. People who cared for him wondered why he was so aloof and he, in turn, began to feel uneasy about how to deal with managing an exclusively offline social life in an ostensibly online age.

"I can't blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems"

"What I do know," he says towards the end of his piece, "is that I can't blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems."

I for one have been calling for us, as a species, to embrace this perspective for a while.

When crazy shit happens on Reddit, or when our experience of online dating turns sour, it's important to note that the design of these services impacts how they get used. I believe that strongly - it's the role of good criticism to describe those effects.

In the end though, the ways in which those services get used don't say so much about technology as they do about the assumptions we have about one another, the vulnerabilities we harbour and the fact that we all have a dark side.

You know what? All those things pre-date the web and yet we seem, collectively, pretty lousy at dealing with and discussing them for what they are. The Internet is our newest, favourite scapegoat. Maybe we should rethink that.

I'd argue that it's necessary to carry out this self-assessment regardless of whether or not we're online. That's what I've learned from Paul Miller's experiment and his thoughtful reports on it all.

I don't know about you, but I feel that's a very, very valuable lesson.


Photo: "Laptop" by CollegeDegrees360 reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

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