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Offline: hard to binge

Offline: hard to binge


Paul Miller continues his Offline travels in a year away from the internet.

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The hyperlink architecture of the internet allows for an only-in-the-21st-century kind of binge. It always starts innocuously enough. Like, one time I saw a video of someone explaining their Yu-Gi-Oh deck, and I didn't understand 90 percent of the words they were using. So I read the Wikipedia entry on Yu-Gi-Oh. And then I watched some more YouTube videos. And then I read a Yu-Gi-Oh card game-specific wiki. And — OMG — I watched so many more YouTube videos.

Seven hours later, at midnight, I was pretty sure Yu-Gi-Oh wasn't for me. What about Magic the Gathering? Three hours later, I fell asleep at my computer — dreaming about the Lord of The Rings collectible card game.

Without the internet, a binge is more difficult

Without the internet, a binge is more difficult. The other day I read a dozen thousand words about Assyrian archeology in my DVD copy of Encyclopedia Britannica, but when I wanted to read about the Xbox 360, there wasn't even a single entry, so I gave up. Yu-Gi-Oh also isn't known to Britannica, thankfully.

A friend of mine recently told me, triumphantly, that he hadn't curtailed his internet use at all since I left the internet. I congratulated him, because he was the first person to brag about it. Most people I've spoken to in the past couple months have offered, unprompted, at least one aspect of their internet use they'd like to cut down on.

On the train ride out to Citi Field for the ultra-Orthodox Jew internet rally, I explained to a fellow non-Jewish passenger where we were headed. She said she didn't have a problem with the internet, but then, a beat later, confessed to being "addicted to Facebook and Twitter."

Even my zero-curtail friend did go on to admit that he's been more cognizant lately of where his web browsing time goes. He feels no guilt over watching endless hours of StarCraft video on YouTube, but wasn't sure he liked how much time he spent poring over sports statistics.

Sports were always a bit of a trap for me as well. Since I don't follow any of them regularly, every time some character would stick out to me — Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin, Roger Federer — I would have to spend hours catching up on their sport of choice for context, and then more hours reading every essay I could find explaining that athlete's exceptionalism, or lack of.

Other top topics for recurring bingeing included Bob Dylan and World War II, specifically: why-the-hell-was-Hitler.

It's like you're eating pistachios, and those pistachios are salty animated GIFs of corgi pratfalls, and you can't stop

Reddit and SenórGIF were a different type of binge. If an endless trip through Bob Dylan's worst-received albums is "exploring," Reddit is getting lost in the woods — you don't know where you're going, and the more you walk the more lost you are. You don't know why you just read that page, you don't think it was a good use of your time, but maybe if you read just one more page you'll find fulfillment. It's like you're eating pistachios, and those pistachios are salty animated GIFs of corgi pratfalls, and you can't stop.

While I'm less of a binge risk these days, due to lack of opportunity, that doesn't mean I'm safe — in fact, I might've lowered my tolerance. When I was a kid, I had a friend whose family didn't watch TV. I'd go over to his house and we'd play LEGOs (his collection had all the weapons excised, but we improvised), Civil War (sticks make for great guns, two sticks taped together and you have a bayonet), or just pretend to shoot each other under no pretense. Then, one time, his parents rented a TV to watch some nature documentary, and I couldn't peel him away from it. I was disgusted with him. I'd seen everything TV had to offer: Inspector Gadget, Garfield and Friends, part of Star Wars, and all of PBS. I guess you could've called me a connoisseur, and here this naive chump was being taken in by a cheesy made-for-TV doc on the migratory patterns of butterflies.

I happened upon a folder called "4chan dump"

A couple weeks ago I was looking for some stuff to delete off my MacBook's 128GB SSD, which is always full, and I happened upon a folder called "4chan dump," which had been so kindly provided to me by a reader before I left the internet. It was terrible. The GIFs were okay — I mean, I've seen better — but the memes were either lame or offensive. I really don't get that Spider-Man animated series meme where Spider-Man is a terrible person and has his hand down his pants. But I looked at every single image in that stupid directory. If it was too small to discern in the Quick Look view, I'd zoom in and read every imbecilic word. I absorbed that folder. It took me more than an hour, and I ended up being late for an evening appointment.

My fear is that I'll return to the internet ten months from now and then just disappear for another year while I read everything, watch everything, and LOL at everything I've missed. What I need is an anti-binge strategy, a way to recognize when my curiosity on Bob Dylan and Yu-Gi-Oh has turned into a pistachio-type fever, and then how to put on the brakes.

In retrospect, it's easy to see what information turns out useless, and what's worth my time. In Amusing Ourselves To Death, which I quote too often, Neil Postman differentiates between the medium of books, which are a sin to burn, and newspapers, which require violent disposal — otherwise we'd be buried under them. It's disposable information vs. evergreen information. Another metric he offers is "actionable" information: is reading about a hurricane thousands of miles away going to influence my actions, say, in terms of donating to the Red Cross, or is it mere spectacle? Postman's problem isn't with dumb entertainment, it's with dumb entertainment that masquerades as knowledge. Still, it can be hard to know which is which up front.

Someone on Reddit warned me that I'd be bored if I left the internet, and they were right. I get bored all the time

The goal for me, in this year and beyond, is to do things consciously and purposefully — submitting my time to my personal goals and values, instead of the next clickiest link. Someone on Reddit warned me that I'd be bored if I left the internet, and they were right. I get bored all the time. In my internet days, I'd rarely be aware of boredom — I might chalk it up to my favorite websites being "boring," or just satiate it with the endless spectacle of Tumblr or YouTube, and either way I'd keep clicking. But now I sit on my couch, and the boredom weighs heavy, and then I decide what to do. In the meatspace, my next activity doesn't come to me in the form of a push notification. I have to reach for a book, or my bike, or a guitar. I might sound like a college student from 1992, but I don't mind.

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.