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A year off the Internet

Tech writer Paul Miller spent a year unplugged from the internet, and returns today to share his insights.

Paul reports that while the first few months disconnected were freeing and encouraged him to read more deeply, write more, and do more recreational activities, what he found after several months went by is that this “freedom” wasn’t all he had thought it might be.

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.

Paul says that while he thought he might find his “real” self disconnected from the Internet, instead he realized that his “real self” and his online interactions were rather inextricably linked.

He relates a conversation with a young relative during a recent visit:

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.”

In the end, Miller has decided, being connected with those he loves is more important than whatever “freedom” his technological disconnection provided.

Miller’s story highlights many of the concerns that have gone through my head whenever I have considered “unplugging” in some way or another. Yes, I might gain back some “free time”. Yes, I might be better able to sit down and read 200 pages at a single go instead of 20. (Wait, I have 3 small kids – what am I thinking? 200 pages is a pipe dream.)

But my friendships and social interactions over the past decade have been hugely influenced and enabled by technology. I’ve made friends over Twitter, and blogs, and forums; people that aren’t just ‘creepy internet friends’ but that have become real, embodied friends when we’ve had the chance to meet in person.

So when I think of disconnecting the way Paul Miller did, the first word that comes to my mind is “lonely”. Which means, for better or worse, I’m going to be staying connected.

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