Full text of A Year Offline, What I Have Learned by Paul Miller at TEDxEutropolis conference.
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I did. I left the internet for an entire year. I was 26 years old and it was May 1st 2012 and I pulled the plug and there were a lot of reasons. But the main reason was probably that I was 26 years old and, you know, I had to have life figured out and I was really overwhelmed. It was a bit of a crisis and it just felt like everything was too much and I could not win and the internet kept on coming, and there’s more emails, you can’t — you can’t win against your email inbox because the moment you hit archive on the very last one you’re going to get a new email. And you can’t win on Twitter because there’s so much – there’s so much Justin Bieber to talk about and there is just — I just felt this in a really overwhelming, very personal way that the Internet was sort of defeating me and suppressing me.
Of course, all my entire life with, it’s the Internet. I was 12 years old when I started using Internet and I could track with sickness and I’ve probably used the Internet for the majority of my waking hours since then. I was a web designer as a teenager. I started writing about technology as a journalist when I was about 20. And so it’s all I’ve ever really known, I don’t know what life is like without the internet, without being constantly connected, without email inbox. I do remember time before Twitter but this is really hazy.
And so I also have this desire to get some stuff done. I wanted to do some personal study, some reading. I had some writing projects that I was putting off and I figured, if I quit the Internet, which is using all of my time, I would have unlimited free time to accomplish the things that I desired to accomplish. And so I quit the Internet.
And the question that I was kind of asking beyond just my personal goals was: how does the internet use me and how do I use the Internet? And it’s, you know, at what point are my decisions and my goals dictating my behavior on the internet and what point are the apps and the people and the processes and just how the internet is the medium itself, how’s that dictating my behavior and how’s that changing my behavior?
In the mid ‘90s, Nicholas Negroponte who is the Founder of Wired Magazine and the MIT Media Lab, he wrote – that was very early at this point – so the web surfing isn’t really — it’s kind of a fad, we can’t keep this up. This isn’t really how life gets done. Pretty soon there’s going to be bots and they’ll go out on the Internet for you and they’ll find all of the information and you can get back to being a productive adult and maybe the kids will have time to surf the internet. But that’s not going to be us. We can’t do that, we’re productive members of society. And he was totally wrong with the internet for surfing, that’s what we do when we’re using the Internet.
But in a sense he was right that except for a select few people and I know I’m not included in this, when I’m using the Internet outside of a little bit of research, I’m not really typically being productive, at least that’s how I felt. I wasn’t accomplishing the things, like I said I wanted to write, I wanted to read and I wasn’t really accomplishing those things when I was clicking on links, when I was tweeting, when I was on Reddit. When I was absorbing this vast amazing incredible sea of information, I was more often than not being distracted by it instead of built up by it and I didn’t feel like I was being productive. I wish there was those bots that used the Internet for me, so I didn’t have to use it.
And I contrast the way I use the internet with how my parents used the internet. I do think there’s a difference there where they are able to use it more as a utility, it’s a very useful incredible invention for them. They go on Amazon and they buy a thing and I check their email and they send an email to me asking me why I haven’t emailed them recently. And my mom’s on Twitter now. My dad has Instagram but really it’s very tiny fraction of their life and then they get back to doing the things that need to be done. And for me because — maybe because I grew up with it or because I’m a nerd or I have a low-level of self control, my life was the Internet and other things maybe happened in the margins. And, you know, I was — I’d be looking down at my phone and then I look up and there’s a person still there — that’s good and I look back on my phone and I’m back in my world where I belong, where I understand and what I know and where I’m capable.
So when I left the Internet, I felt to some amazing sense of freedom. I quit texting in addition to the internet, so I wasn’t getting any email, people weren’t checking my email for me. I had no connection to the Internet and I was so free, I was so happy, I was high on life and everything smelled better and I had a escape of myself, it’s just so good and the sensation I had is kind of like a fifteen-year-olds, like you can’t tell me what to do internet, you know, like my life is mine now and I get to make the choices. And that email that’s incoming doesn’t get to mess with my plans for today. And it was so wonderful and I experienced some new sensations that I never really had before, or not in a long time. And one of those was boredom — just incredible intense boredom.
And I don’t know if you’ve ever been bored before, it was kind of a new thing for me. I’ll describe the sensation. It’s — you’re not doing anything right now, you don’t have anything to do and there’s nothing at arm’s length that can fix that. When you have the Internet, the moment you’re kind of thinking about maybe being bored, you can grab your phone and you slide to unlock and now you have an entire world of information and entertainment right in front of you and maybe you don’t want hat right now. But you’re not bored, trust me because I got bored, and it’s a very different thing and it’s something actually creative people have talked about for a long time, it’s this time that some people call meditation but you get solitude and you have a space to think and be creative. And I also found it was the time to actually decide what I actually wanted to do instead of taking the path of least resistance.
I also had very different interactions with people, and this is something that’s been talked by so many people so much about. You know, this Facebook really bring us together with people or are we just hiding in our computers pretending that we have friends? And what I found is that without the internet I could be with a person in a much more intense and much more personal way. Those are words people use, like that was intense, it was intense hanging out with you, it’s scary — even on the phone I was scary, maybe this wasn’t a compliment but I really valued my ability to talk with people and it wasn’t just that I didn’t have of a phone that could distract me right then. I also didn’t have my mental cycles thinking about, are my email stacking up somewhere, am I missing something on Twitter, did I forget to check in at this place on Foursquare. I didn’t have that distracting me and allowed me to be much more on the moment and my sister told me that I became more emotionally available. Then she’d really know me throughout her life and I had a conversation with a friend I’ve known for years that was — so we just got to a deeper level than we’ve ever gotten. And I just — I treasure that like so much.
And then there was the flip side for both of those things. Boredom is awesome if you do something good with it. But it’s not awesome if you just play video games. And that’s what I started doing. I swear, I’m sorry, I’m twenty-years-old and I was just stupid and I played so much video games through that year. And that became that thing, I didn’t know about it right at first. I didn’t actually play a lot of video games before I quit the internet. But it became that thing that was really easy, was right in arm’s length and I would grab the controller and just get rid of that, sometimes terrifying feeling of boredom. And I’ve wasted so much time.
The other thing I have with people is that while when I was with them it was really great and it was really personal and really intense. I stopped hanging out with people as often. I kind of got disconnected from my social circle. It’s definitely very difficult to keep in touch with people out of stay and my family is kind of all over the country. But even people in my city, I missed the email, I missed the Facebook invite. You know, I forgot that that movie was coming out this weekend and you miss a couple of those and then you kind of miss more and more. And early on a lot of my loneliness would prompt me to go out and reach out to people and call people on the phone which they hate when I call them. They’d much prefer a text especially for making plans. But I had to stick by my principles and I’d call them and they didn’t want to hang out or it was too late and that loneliness sort of built on itself and I became very withdrawn. Sometimes I want to hang out with people for a week and I just came out of sync with my social circle. I wasn’t then on the jokes, I didn’t know the lingo and I hadn’t seen the same movies. And that was really tough.
When I came back on the Internet, that was one of the most intense experiences of all because it was so overwhelming. I think maybe we forget how skilled we are using the internet, and how much of your brain it requires to use, and I’d train myself through this year of now engaging with one idea at a time or one video came at a time at least. But I’d been working, I have been reading some books a little bit and I was really into that — capture that one big idea and one big book and how great — I’ll get that wasn’t talking with one person at a time. And on a 10 browser tabs and twenty people were telling me which links I had to go to because I missed them during the year, when that was gone and I had my phone and my laptop and my tablet and it was so much — I literally began to panic that first day I was back and throughout that week I was very stressed, about a week and from be back on the Internet, I was at my coffee shop and I was going through email, I had about 20,100 emails when I got back. I forgot to put a auto-responder on my email. So a tip, if you guys are going to leave the Internet.
And my sister came in and she wanted to talk about her day and I was listening and it kind of – but I also was thinking about what was going on in my inbox, and I kind of spread over my laptop a little more and kind of nod along to what she was saying. And she said, “Well, the wall is back up.” And it’s this sensation — she’s had this deal with this her whole life, I am plugged into this computer and she wants to talk to me and I’m not really 100% available, maybe 10%, maybe even 90% but I’m not a 100% available. And I closed the laptop and I didn’t want to be that person anymore. But I missed at least that moment.
When I got back to Internet, maybe you should know this about me. I wrote for the technology publication called Verge. I helped found it. It actually launched six months before I left the Internet which is probably a little ironic. But I was trying to get back to work. I wrote about my experiences for the publication. So I was able to have a job, publishing articles for the Internet, without having the Internet, I’d hand them a thumb drive and they put my stories up.
But I wanted to kind of earn it back a little bit and do some really good work. I started doing a story, my first month back on Google glass. So I went from no Internet to having the Internet literally on my face for a week, you know, learning this device. And I got so into it and I was finally kind of getting some productivity back and learning to manage all this multi-pronged attack of the Internet. And I had a Skype call scheduled with my brother and sister-in-law. And I hadn’t seen them visually and I hadn’t seen their kids, you know, probably six months.
And I did not really want to do it. I don’t know what it is about that, but somehow that thing that you really aren’t the most into, it’s just a random link on the Internet, is stopping me from wanting to connect with somebody, that’s that important to me. But I did. I set down my project and I Skyped with them and my niece played me Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on violins, she is learning the violin. It was a very slow rendition. But it was beautiful and she and my nephew had to both create original songs that they had written in crayon on pieces of paper and they held up to the camera and they’re saying them for me. Her song was called Horsey Ride. His song was called Helicopter Stop. And that was such a precious thing and it’s not just that I almost missed that out on it then. I missed out on that my whole year being off the Internet. And it’s a very valuable awesome thing, and I don’t want to take that for granted anymore.
I got kind of lucky when I came back to the Internet. I was kind of trying to figure out what I’m going to do next. And the idea popped into my head which I wish it occurred to me earlier. But it finally did occur to me, that I spent the entire year focused on myself and trying to fix myself and improve myself and become a better me and educated and things like that. And really maybe I should spend some of the next year to do something for somebody else and be a little less selfish. And besides then at work, right, I didn’t fix my productivity. I didn’t do all the reading or all the writing I wanted to do.
So I needed something else to do. So I decided I would do something for people or try to care for people. And my brother just deployed with the Air Force and so I am currently living in Colorado with my sister-in-law and helping out with the kids. And it’s so great because, I’ve realized in this time without the Internet that leaving the Internet is not going to fix my problems. It’s something people quoted a lot to me when I came back and saw my sort of failures and struggles is that, wherever you go there you are. I could change my circumstance but I’m still this guy that’s just not very productive. But I also am a guy that really does love people and I love my nieces and nephews. This is a different brother actually. I have two brothers, nieces and nephews, it’s very complicated. But I’m able to spend time with these kids and it’s such a rewarding use of my time.
And finally, I’m able to kind of dictate back to the Internet what I do find important. And that’s — it’s cool to have that power over it. And I kind of again feel that freedom I felt right when I left the Internet. It’s like you’re not the boss to me. It’s like, yeah, ok, I suck at productivity and I get distracted easily. But it’s not the Internet’s fall. I’m in charge of my life and I’ve decided what I want to do you is hang out with these kids for a while all their dads gone. And that is so rewarding. My nephew has some Star Wars toys and he has no idea what Star Wars is. And so he is describing to me the function of a lightsaber. And he says, the lightsaber shoots the competition and the competition’s fires, which has so many errors in that sentence. The lightsaber is not a gun.
But I tweeted it, of course, and somebody tweeted back to me. It’s a friend of mine. He is an Orthodox Jew, and I talked to him a lot while it was off the Internet, because he understands this, finding this balance. He is a technology analyst but he honors the Sabbath. And he spends that day with his family. And he said, “If you were still a 100% online at all, you would have missed this experience. And if you’re still 100% offline we would have missed it”.
Yes, I did. I found the balance. I did something in real-life. I told the internet about it. I am very happy. So I just want to make sure we ask ourselves what is our priority and that we do that thing. And I’ll let the Internet tell us differently. Thank you.