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Offline: the hurricane

Offline: the hurricane


How now shall we live?

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It's been six months since I left the internet. So far, I think I made the right choice. At home the other day, to help convince myself I was doing well, I stacked all the books I'd read so far. It was two, almost three feet high! More importantly, if I want to read a book, then I just read it. I just say: "Hey you, book, come over here, let me read you." It's a stunning ability, one I haven't possessed since I was 10 and a member of Pizza Hut's Book-It club.

Still, all these books later, I feel like I'm writing more or less the same article over and over. I was hoping for a few more hijinks to share with you, but most of my time writing seems spent in introspection. Specifically I think there's one question that sums up this entire experiment:

"How now shall we live?"

As in, the internet isn't going anywhere, but it has an agenda, and so how do I respond to that and enforce my own agenda?

I'd love to do one thing well for two decades, instead of a million good Tweets

Books I've read recently include Steven Johnson's Future Perfect, Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows. All of them talk about technology "wanting" something. There's still debate about what the internet wants, how it gets it, and if it will ultimately succeed, but I have yet to see a decent intellectual argument for a docile internet.

Whenever I think of the phrase "how now shall we live?" I also think of the phrase "how now, brown cow?" I actually wrote an offline tweet on this topic in my early months without the internet: How NOW brown cow??? = world's first rap battle

I don't write offline tweets anymore, my brain just isn't wired that way anymore. This is the tradeoff of being able to read books: slower thoughts that get stuck in a rut sometimes, less free association, more plod.

Knowing I have this power to rewire my brain is odd and exciting. The difficulty now is picking which wiring. Part of me idolizes the concept of old-timey ultra-productives. Think the blueprint-illuminating monk in Canticle for Leibowitz, or the non-fictional Alexander Pope, who spent two decades translating Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. I'd love to do one thing well for two decades, instead of a million good Tweets.

At the same time, this is not a very marketable skill. A world wired to consume things in short bursts needs creators of short bursts more than long haulers, it would seem.

A new metaphor I've been mulling for life, universe, everything, is the old cliché of "utilizing the whole buffalo." You know, the idea of appreciatively and efficiently using what mother nature gives you.

I thought about this a lot during the Hurricane Sandy. Like millions of other people, I lost power during the storm — and for the days following. What I observed was a beautiful, slow version of Manhattan, where idle New Yorkers calmly scavenged for Doritos, wine, and cellphone signal. I spoke to people who, it seemed for the first time in ages, weren't concerned with their email. They wanted people on "the outside" to know they were safe, and they wanted something of ill nutrition to eat that night. That was about it.

This might not sound like whole buffalo utilization to you, but for me there's something about paying attention to the entire self, as it exists in reality, instead of merely the self that's required by others.

I found, for myself, priorities were easy: my laptop's battery could be used for charging my phone, and my iPad's battery was best suited to providing music and audiobook entertainment. Also, I found Dirty BBQ potato chips in a darkened bodega, and bought four bags, so I was set. A book, a candle, and my sister and roommate to play board games and explore the city with — it's surprising how unnecessary a home's electrical outlets can be, at least for a few days.

On Tuesday night, at a candlelit bar across the street from me, I ordered a (surprisingly cold, fountain-supplied) Diet Coke. There I proceeded to get in a semi-argument with a semi-drunk man. He was trying to explain the basic physics of photography to me, but I just wanted a quick tip on how to use my Yashica — a film camera we both own and admire. For some reason we just couldn't communicate with each other, and I grew impatient, made up an excuse, and went home.

As I went to bed that night, I pondered the question: "what am I really like?" I saw myself through that other man's eyes. There I was, lit by a hundred candles, seated at the edge of my bar stool like a presidential debater, making attempts at useful, conversation-advancing body language. For a second I pondered my exterior maturity, if I really looked like a man or a child in the situation. Thankfully in the darkness he couldn't see my face flushing with impatience.

But then I realized I was looking at the whole buffalo. For so long I've viewed myself through the lens of my "online presence." Even my time away from the internet has primarily had meaning and value through what people read about me on The Verge. I don't ask for people to read me the comments, but I conjecture what they might be. I try to conjecture how many Twitter followers I have now. "Am I internet famous?" I always ask. Or sometimes I just say "I'm internet famous," early on in conversations with people I'm trying to impress.

I was just "one of the millions of people on the east coast without electricity."

I'm thankful to that time of total, real, ubiquitous disconnect provided by the hurricane. It made me non-special. I wasn't "the guy with no internet," I was just "one of the millions of people on the east coast without electricity."

Now that bubble's been popped. I'm in a coffee shop on the west coast, listening to smooth rock, typing into an iPad. The article will then be handed to a co-worker to upload for me. My "online presence" will re-emerge. But I'll always have the memories, the half-melted candles, and the whole buffalo waiting to be fully utilized.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.