Several weeks ago, I wrote that there are times when I’d like to see the Internet burn to the ground. The event that I describe in that article, and the resulting controversy, vitriol, and hatred, might lead you to think that there’s something off-kilter about the Internet itself. That maybe the amount to which we put ourselves online is having deleterious effects, and that if we spent a little more time offline, we might be better off as people.
There may be some truth to that — much has been made about such psychological phenomena as the “online disinhibition effect” and some recent research indicates that the Internet can be related to mental illness and addiction:
The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.
In light of news like that, perhaps it would be a good idea for us all to close our web browsers, put down our iPhones, turn off our cable modems, and truly unplug for awhile. So what happens if you leave the Internet for an entire year? Paul Miller did just that, and the results weren’t quite as great you might think. His un-plugged adventure started out well:
Leaving the internet was so great… at first. It was the relief of pressure that I’d wanted for years. No more push notifications, no more calendar invites, no more reply-all’d email threads, no more retweets, friend requests, text messages, or rabbit holes. I was alone with my thoughts, I had all the time in the world to read books and frolic outdoors in the beautiful spring and summer days of 2012. I was more productive, better looking, and perhaps even taller than during the six years I spent as a professional tech writer.
But the novelty soon wore off, and Miller found he was no more or less productive or efficient without the Internet. Actually, by some metrics, he was less productive. He writes, somewhat snarkily:
[W]hat a friggin’ wasted opportunity! I’ve had more time to myself, more freedom, more creative space, than any quasi-responsible adult could ever hope for, and I’ve been pouring it down the drain. Why couldn’t someone better leave the internet who would actually make something of their time?
Or, as he finally realizes: “If anything, I’ve learned that the internet doesn’t make me who I am; I do it to myself, thanks.”
I don’t mean to downplay all concerns about the Internet, and what it can or does mean for us. I don’t want to dismiss concerns about Internet addiction, etc., just because they seem to go against my own admittedly geeky persuasions. And yet, Miller’s story is a helpful reminder that we don’t come to the Internet as complete blank slates ready to be molded into whatever form the Internet so desires.
Perhaps the Internet is better viewed as a mirror that reflects back to us our best — and our worst — qualities in very public and immediate ways. That shouldn’t necessarily scare us away from going online, but maybe it should give us pause in light of how pervasive, open, and ubiquitous the Internet has become in recent years.