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Offline: Peeking

Offline: Peeking


Paul Miller's latest diary from a world disconnected from the internet dives into Nicholas Negroponte's thoughts on browsing back in the '90s, catching glimpses of the internet, and illegally streaming TV sports in a New York bar.

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paul peeking 1020

I can honestly say that since May 1st I haven't loaded a single webpage, synced a single client, downloaded a single file, or sent a single email. I also haven't explicitly asked anyone to do those things for me, though I'm aware that some webpages have been loaded, files downloaded, and emails sent on my behalf. When it comes to purposeful internet use, I'm almost as pure as the wind-driven snow.

I've actually had recurring dreams about vastly violating my self-imposed internet exile, dreams where I'm seated among half a dozen computers, all refreshing Facebook and Tumblr repeatedly, while my supporters in this experiment look on in horror. Maybe it's this subconscious fear that keeps the thought of cheating far from my mind. Also, I don't think my apartment's Wi-Fi works anymore, according to my disgruntled roommate.

But despite my medal-worthy self control, I can't say I've entirely succeeded in extricating the internet from my life. For some reason, in my naivety, I assumed that my own conscious decisions and choices — these things I have been steadfast in — would regulate my internet intake. I was so, so wrong.

My eyes are drawn to screens, just like the vibrant colors and skin-rich photos of the magazine rack can steal your gaze

The Verge has an open office, with desks lining the walls and a hub of tables in the middle of the room. And I can't help but look. As it turns out, my eyes are drawn to screens, just like the vibrant colors and skin-rich photos of the magazine rack can steal your gaze. I'm constantly catching tidbits on my co-workers' LCDs: a jumbo-sized headline here, a Photoshop there, traffic numbers, chat windows, Twitter clients, and the ever-present browser.

Depending on the size of the text, I can usually avert my eyes before I gain specific information. You'll often see me in meetings with my head down, or staring off into space, to avoid a nearby information glut. Still, there are some things that I have a hard time skipping. Live streams and YouTube videos are a real minefield, I'm typically aware of how our site is doing traffic-wise, and I often crane my neck when I catch wind of a private meme.

These little indiscretions might sound harmless, but in aggregate they serve to make my curiosity itch. I start to wonder what exactly that headline says. What's popping on The Verge right now? What's popular on Reddit? What insane, hilarious Verge-memes have I missed? Is talking to @futurepaul still a popular pastime? I've specifically asked to not be informed what people say about me in comments or tweets, but boy do I wonder.

In contrast to the office, my mind is at peace when I'm home. The buzz of curiosity fades, and I can return to a focus on the specific moment. For my experiment to be a success, I have to stop caring what the internet cares about, and instead turn my gaze to the meatspace and its concerns... but I'm also hoping to avoid hermitage.

The irony of all this is that while my fellow office workers are good about minimizing windows, pivoting their screens, and providing ample warnings of impending internet use, few of my friends who don't collect paychecks from technology websites have any concept of this.

Perhaps they just forget, since there's no day-to-day reminder on their homepage of my efforts, but I also think it reveals a different mindset about the internet. My friends are constantly flashing their phone in my face, "hey, look at this photo!", or promising to email me something, or streaming music from the internet for me to hear. At times, these people are even malicious. It's too important that I see what's on their screen, so they force me to look, and if I won't look at the object in digital form, they'll print it it, or look for some other loophole. "What if I email it to myself, then download it, then show it to you?" they ask.

Much of what has concerned me on the internet has a lot to do with the internet

Not to belittle the important work of my entire career, but I have to admit that much of what has concerned me on the internet has a lot to do with the internet. I don't share baby photos, or track down my family's genealogy, or even do much online shopping (except for digital products). Instead I'm often found reading stories of MMO exploits, or complaining about AT&T's 3G speeds, or searching for a better RSS reader, or sharing a Google Doc about Even with things that really do matter, much of what I find on the internet is reaction. It's a YouTube video of someone's thoughts, it's a retweet of someone's thoughts, or it's an editorial of someone's thoughts. Tweeting about a riot is different than a brick through your window, and getting a pair of shoes in the mail is different than re-tumbling a nice pair of retro Nikes.

Still, I think these distinctions that seem obvious to me, the "virtual" and "real life," are less obvious to someone whose internet use has much more to do with real life than the virtual.

In 1996, when the internet being a vital part of everyone's everyday life was still a wild fantasy, Nicholas Negroponte wrote a short editorial for Wired examining the term "browsing."

"Rarely does browsing suggest the serious, productive use of one’s time," he pointed out. And yet, for early adopters like me, browsing has always felt like the primary purpose of the internet. Negroponte expected that by the year 2000, when the internet would be truly mainstream, we would've evolved past these trivial uses for such a powerful tool. Browsing might be fine for those of us kids with free time on our hands, but not for an entire society that needs to get things done, like himself.

"When people do use the Net," he wrote of this coming tipping point, "it will be for more suitable purposes: communicating, learning, experiencing."

Of course, he was entirely wrong. It's 2012 now, and surfing is so embedded in our culture that we don't even speak of it: it's what the internet is for, and it's the method by which we communicate, learn, and experience. That's not to say Negroponte didn't identify a potential problem with the internet: a troubling signal-to-noise ratio. In fact, it's in large part thanks to this signal-to-noise ratio that I'm currently attempting an internet-free existence. But to say we're using the internet entirely wrong, and have yet to make it a "productive use of one's time," is a little laughable. Yes, a culture is shaped by its tools, and the internet was shaping me a little too much, but for many people the internet remains a servant, not a master — a window, not a door.

For me the internet had begun to mean push notifications and Reddit threads, but for most of society, the internet just represents modern convenience.

The other day, while searching out the Knicks / Heat game with a casual internet user, we happened across a dingy bar he'd never visited before. The so-dive-it's-cool scene is still active in NY, but this wasn't that sort of place. There was one retired patron at the bar, some video slots in a corner, a few ancient flat-screens along the ceiling, and a smell of death. We asked if they were planning on showing the game.

"Yeah, are you showing the game?" said the patron, happy for some action.

"Oh, I forgot that was tonight," said the middle-aged bartender. "Let me see if I can get it to work." He tossed his towel over his shoulder and disappeared into a back room.

I tried to figure out what he meant by "get it to work," until I realized what was on two of the TV screens. A Windows desktop. I pointed this out to my companion.

"If he moves that cursor, we're going to have to leave," I said.

"Why's that?"

"I think he's going to stream it."

"I think he's going to stream it."

Sure enough, the cursor began to crawl, and up popped one of those illegal TV streaming sites that everybody I know uses but nobody really talks about.

"You can't watch an internet stream, even though it's just TV?" asked my friend.

"No, we'll have to find someplace else."

Both of us being short on alternative sports-watching locations (he typically streams as well), we took a train to my usual spot, missing the beginning to an ultimately disappointing game.

I knew it would be hard to go about "daily life" without the aid of the internet, "getting real things done," and "not ending up homeless," but what about when "daily life" simply means using the internet? Not as some sort of time-suck playground, but as part of my essential identity?

For the next 11.5 months I'll keep averting my eyes, and if I don't, at least we'll know what I truly can't live without.

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. Paul's admitted to being very anxious about his current traffic numbers. Pray for him.