Why I’m going offline for a while
I’m pacing my room, thinking about a cigarette.
I’ve just emerged from a three hour internet bender, trying to research this post.
The rabbit trail had me finally cornered at this arcade blackhole of a site where I watched my Alpine skier flip end over end in slow-motion, 1982, 8-bit color.
Thirty-two years on, our virtual world is slightly more advanced, yet it hasn’t lost its ability to send us tumbling down the side of a cliff in an avalanche of Facebook likes, blog stats and people getting hilariously injured.
It’s awful. Not people getting hurt—that’s numbingly funny. What’s awful is the fact that I feel both mesmerized and trapped by the internet’s ability to provide instant gratification while at the same time sucking my desire to be a contributing member of society.
And it’s only getting worse.
I remember the days before the Facebook newsfeed, where you actually had to search a friend’s name to find their page and you went because you had a reason to go there.
And I remember the days before the internet even existed at all. If only vaguely.
I used to do things until the Internet
I used to collect and trade baseball cards. It was a huge passion of mine. There was nothing better than the smell of opening a new pack—splitting it ever so carefully so as not to damage the corners—and anticipating what rare or valuable cards would be uncovered. I could put rosters together simply by knowing players and their teams from their baseball cards.
And I wrote. More, and in a more authentic way than I do here on this blog, whatever value this might have. I wrote for the joy of writing and not because it was in some public forum where potentially everyone could read my words. I wrote short stories like this one from seventh-grade that I’m still trying to match the quality of, 17 years later.
I drew mazes and played outside and had a sun tan. Now I’m a cream-colored fleshy blob, like overcooked oatmeal, microwaved by the rays emanating from this computer screen.
It started with AIM—the instant message—and I was hooked. This was no catch and release. The hook only went deeper. Now everything is linked in irrevocable chains, keeping us captive in the dungeons of likes, comments and videos that start playing all by themselves as you scroll over them.
But emerging into the light of real-reality isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s not as simple as flipping a switch and walking away. It’s more akin to performing surgery—to removing a bit of who I am as a person.
He’s just a ‘facebook’ friend
I’ve fantasized about purging my Facebook friend list, “deleting” anyone I haven’t physically spoken with in the past year. In these dream sequences I convince myself that they aren’t my real friends. But if that were true, why is it so hard to hit the unfriend button?
Erasing a friend in virtual reality still causes offence and emotional pain in a physical reality.
And that right there is one proof of how the lines are blurred.
Nate Jurgenson, a net theorist, adds to this thought. He points out that when we’re at our computers we’re still flesh and blood in real time, and when we’re out camping we’re thinking about how awesome it will be to tweet about our adventure once we return.
In a digital age, the real you is a composite of reality and virtual reality.
Losing a whole year
I first came across Paul Miller while high from a line of TEDx Talks on Youtube. In 2012 as a tech writer for The Verge, he set off into the wild of reality, living unplugged from the internet for a whole year.
The first few months were great. He lost weight. His family found him more emotionally available. He cranked out half of novel. Then reality set in. Miller found himself again struggling against the negatives he thought were the cause of always being connected to the Internet.
“There’s deeper reasons for a lot of my problems that didn’t really have a lot to do with the Internet. They just manifest differently on and offline,” says Miller in a video documentary shot 11 months into his experience.
It’s not a matter of virtual vs. reality. The real world exists and continues in real-time, whether we’re connected or not.
The heart of the matter lies in how Miller wanted to change and be different. Going offline was the path he chose in order to discover himself and life in a new way. And that’s why I’m taking up the similar cross to trudge along. By it, I may just find freedom.
The real, virtual challenge
I don’t really want to quit it altogether. After all, the Internet itself isn’t the problem—it’s the way I’ve let it snag me and pull me into its vortex.
The Internet is simply a tool—like a car or pen and paper even—and can be used to accomplish constructive things. The trick is to get to a point where I’m using it as a tool and not becoming a tool myself—twisted and turned and wrenched and wracked by an overwhelming beast with its head lost in the cloud.
Without making ridiculous promises I’ll never keep, I’m not going to do it for a year. I’m going to start with a 30-day trial and then re-evaluate where I stand. Starting tonight and running for a month, I’ll be adhering to the rules set up below.
I also expect to slip up at some point and am ready to forgive myself. The point isn’t to do it just for the sake of saying I did it, but to try and discover how a life without the constant virtual-distractions will enable me to live a better life.
What I’m hanging onto:
- Posting to this blog – All my writing will be done offline, and the only page I’m permitting myself is the posting page. This also means all my research will be done offline. It’s going to be a bit trickier, but I hope it will encourage me to draw even more from the human experience and to connect with people better by asking more questions, considering the answers and simply hanging out with people more in general.
- E-mail – Though I’ll be checking it less often, I’m limiting myself to 30 min. on Tuesdays and Fridays. This will force me to scan quickly and focus on the essentials, while letting the rest fall serenely by the wayside.
- Skype – I have family and friends who live on different continents and the technology to be able to see them face to face in real time is an incredible blessing. A major point of this whole thing is to connect better with people, and there’s no good reason to pull the legs out from under this ability.
- FutureLearn – I’m currently taking a couple of free classes online, and I really enjoy them and I believe they’re helping me create a better future.
What I’m giving up:
- Facebook – This site has been one of the deadlier ones when it comes to zapping my time. Those who want to get ahold of me can still call or e-mail.
- Online articles – Ok, pretty much everything else caught in the interwebs not included in the list above.
- Texts – This is, perhaps, a weird one, and people may get slightly annoyed with me but I’m extending the ban to cell phone texts as well. My phone bill is going to go up, but I’m going to try simply phoning instead and see how it goes.
Like Miller’s experience, I don’t expect giving up the Internet to automatically change my life. What I do expect is the opportunity to be able to discover what a freer, more productive life is.
In quitting, there’s so much to gain
So…why? Why am I quitting the Internet? What do I hope to gain? What’s the reason, what’s the search? And what, you might ask, did the Internet do to deserve such a shunning?
It’s existential, mostly, and not a little selfish.
I want more time to myself. Sitting alone at a computer, surfing the web doesn’t constitute time to myself, quite the opposite in fact. I feel buried and overwhelmed by the amount of information I expose myself to.
I want to create more, and consume less. I’ve got this idea growing in the back of my head about a kind of a ‘create movement,’ that seeks to draw out people’s creative energy and make contributions to the world in real, tangible ways.
I want to give my priorities space to breathe. I have a list of priorities taped above my desk like studying Russian and calling friends, but I’ve seen them lose their places to my addiction of spending time on the Internet.
I want to remove the stress that comes from trying to keep up with the Joneses. I wonder how much of my overall anxiety and depressed feelings are directly related to feeling I’m not measuring up to what I perceive others to be accomplishing through their posts on the internet. I struggle with dark competition, an idea put to words by Stephen Covey, where I’m not competing for some kind of place or prize but for my “own internal sense of worth.”
I want to draw myself out into the world made of flesh and bones. I ignored my host brother for a random linked article. He was making little etchings on a piece of scratch paper on my desk for a board game he’s inventing, and he wanted my input. I did one of those little “mmhmms” and in no uncertain non-verbal hints, turned back towards the computer screen. Now that he’s left for the capital for a few days I started thinking what a great idea he has and I need the time to invest to help him draw it out.
“What are you doing for others?”
As Paul Miller was set to return to life with the Internet, he reflected on what he’d learned, what he’d failed to learn and what he now wanted from life.
“I want this next year to be about other people than just Paul Miller. There’s only so much navel gazing that one guy can do. There’s people in the world with real problems other than that they use reddit too much.”
That’s where I want to be. I want to take down the pixelated placards that have covered the reality of my life with a virtual wall made from carefully selected photo tags and manicured status updates.
I want to climb out of the webs where I’ve been buried, entangled in click-bait titles and shiny topics I care nothing about.
I want to look up from my virtual navel and see people with hearts pumping in their chests, moving and breathing and being.
For now the pacing has stopped, and I’m meditating in the deep silence of a stilled computer. I’m still here, I’m not gone, and I’m not leaving. It’s my hope that this time will find me more present than ever–both in my own life, and in the lives of others.
For obvious reasons I’m not going to be reading comments here for a while, but please share with us your thoughts–how does the Internet get in the way of your life? Have you ever lived or thought about living offline? It what ways do you limit your Internet usage? Should we even make attempts to limit it? What does a life offline have to offer?