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Offline: What is the internet?

Offline: What is the internet?


Paul Miller continues his offline travels and considers what the internet is.

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paul offline 1020

My sister helps take care of a 7-year-old, who recently asked "what is the internet?" It's a good question. She (the 7-year-old) thought it meant computers and phones. I remember chuckling at the expense of elders who thought the Internet Explorer icon on their desktop was the internet. Will a future generation chuckle at me while I maintain a concept of the internet that was conceived in the dial-up era? Back then, the internet was something you'd "connect" to, and then "disconnect" from when your session was over and your parents wanted you to free up the phone line and go outside for once in my life. How simple and carefree we were.

Every conversation feels informed by the internet in some way

So is the internet computers and phones now? Is it more? I've found over the past couple months that I can't ask a question without getting an answer that was checked or double-checked on the internet. If someone recommends me something to read in "The New York Times," they read it first on the internet, even if they intend for me to read it in my paper version. I can't ask for directions without someone being on Google Maps in seconds, no matter how loud I protest. Every conversation feels informed by the internet in some way, or like it will end up on the internet some way. Even when I want to tell people what I do and to look me up, I have to resort to a pitiful "Uh, just Google 'Paul Miller' and 'The Verge' and 'Offline' and my articles should show up." What else would I do? Carry around autographed hard copies of my works?

If someone tells me a website I should check out, I tell them warily that I'll look it up in roughly ten months. They look at me with pity, as if they just offered me a piece of cake and I refused to partake for a similar timespan. They didn't give me a recipe and some kitchen supplies and some flour; the cake is right here, ready to be eaten, and soon to be stale.

In a way, the internet doesn't feel like a "phone line" or the "Postal Service" or "tubes" anymore, it feels like the conversations and bills and utilities delivered over those mediums, which never remain confined to those mediums. It feels like everything, really.

Jonathan Lethem recently wrote a short fiction where he was a user of an internet within an internet, limited to 100 people and governed by a benevolent dictator. "Our leader had only two rules," he writes, "both brilliantly simple: no money, and no animals. The implications are enormous. Picture, if you will, your own Internet subject to those strictures; I doubt you can."

And he's right, I can't. I can't imagine the internet missing any arbitrary part, most of all animals or money.

In meatspace it's easier to define the dividing line between necessity and fluff

I've often wished for a metric that could measure the amount of the internet that exists only to serve and perpetuate the internet — the "meaningless" part. The ultimate example is Google, which is the high bar of internet ubiquity, and yet its primary purpose is to help you find the internet. In the meatspace it's easier to define the dividing line between necessity and fluff: some people grow food or build houses, some people teach parachuting or mix cologne.

Tim Kreider, in July 1st's issue of The New York Times, has an essay on busyness, where he differentiates between these two types of work: "More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn't performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I'm not sure I believe it's necessary."

Unfortunately for the ready-to-work boa constrictors and cats-in-overalls of the world, on the internet ostensibly nothing is "tangible." There are no shovel-ready jobs; there's not even a job site. We hold our computers and phones, and those are tangible. There are long snakes of fiber running through the earth, and those are tangible. Heat pours out of data centers, and that is tangible. But none of those are the internet.

Since I don't "use the internet," according to my dial-up definition, I'm frequently longing for my friends to "disconnect" from it and spend more time with me throwing frisbees — because what could possibly as important on this ephemeral internet that has them so wrapt? But if they "disconnected," what would we talk about? Probably about someone who just friended them on Facebook, or this great new idea for a website they had, or this well-reviewed restaurant — "wait a minute, let me look it up" — that we should hit up later. And at that restaurant we'd eat food that a chef probably emailed to another chef, and then pay with internet-verified credit cards, and then take cabs home with embedded screens flush with internet-obtained or distributed information. Or go see a movie in theaters that was delivered in digital form over the internet. And then we'd go home and listen to music we bought on iTunes at some point, or that was originated by band members who met on Craigslist.

I recently spotted a magazine cover that promised to name "100 disruptors," and I chuckled to myself (I'm a frequent chuckler, as it turns out). I instantly assumed the magazine would speak of up-and-coming internet entrepreneurs, the creators of meaningless internet remixes like Instagram and Patch and Tumblr. I'm armored with no-internet, making me impervious to those so-called disruptions, so call me when you have a shovel-ready job and keep your "disruptors" to yourself. I didn't even bother to look inside the magazine, to see if my assumption of its contents was true.

But the internet has disrupted everything

But the internet has disrupted everything, and it would be ignorant to try and cut it into infographic slices and point at the disruptor parts and the silly distractions. It would be as useful to legislate thought crimes and doubleplusgood lines of reasoning.

What is internet fluff, and what is internet marrow? What's the line between "virtual" and "real"? If it's not tangible, is it necessarily inconsequential? And how am I to know? Especially with a blindfold on. Ideas have consequences, and if an idea falls in an internet message board, and I'm not there to retweet it, it does make a sound.

But seriously, is anyone down for frisbee this afternoon?

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.