I really appreciated reading Paul Miller’s account of his year without the Internet, which ended yesterday (link). For one he put the lie to the mantra that so many people believe: “I couldn’t live without my smartphone.” It seems that he did just fine, and even enjoyed it.
But Miller’s experiment also exposed the bogeymen we’ve set up to scare us about the effects of the Internet. The Internet has not created new bad habits for us: Miller describes how he replaced his bad habits online with new bad habits offline. And the pressures of life exist these days whether or not you have the Internet breathing down your neck: He describes how the old pressures of a cluttered email box sublimated into pressures of a cluttered PO Box. And how Facebook isn’t making us lonely: Miller spends a good deal of words describing the isolation he felt from not being connected to others via the Internet. In the end, for a Millennial generation that connects, collaborates, and creates culture online, life without the Internet is a lonely place indeed. No one should be exiled like that. It’s straight-up solitary confinement.
However, the results of Miller’s experiment are not what he claims they are. Why? Because he was the only one doing it. His experience does not show us what life would be like without the Internet. It shows us what life is like when everyone else has the Internet except you.
Find someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account. You’ll find a story similar to Miller’s. They’re lonely and feel isolated. The feel disconnected from what’s happening.
Miller’s yearlong experiment was worthwhile, I think, for many reasons. But it doesn’t give us a clear picture of what life would be if no one had the Internet. Rather, it shows us what it feels like to be marginalized by technology. Miller’s experiment shows just how powerful the Internet is. When everyone has adopted it, the one who suffers most is the one without it. He suffers by not going along with it. This theme is true for anyone who ever held out against a new technology—they got set aside. They were overtaken. They got pushed to the margins.
Miller said it himself, “I fell out of sync with the flow of life.”
Miller is happy to be back on the Internet, where everyone else is. He’s glad to be reconnected with people and culture, community and activity. I’m glad he is too. But let’s not misunderstand what his experience means. Far from illustrating the Internet’s benefits, his experiment is a sort of relief showing how deeply the Internet has etched itself into the cave walls of modern society.