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Offline: how's it going?

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Paul continues his offline travels in his year without the internet.

paul offline
paul offline

It's all anybody asks me. I tell them I'm not using the internet for a year, and they just need to know: "How's it going?"

"It's going great," I say.

"Yeah?" they say, dubiously. Their eyes glaze over: they're trying to imagine what it would be like for them to leave the internet for any span of time. They probably read some article recently that made them feel bad about their Facebook habit. "I don't think I could do it," they admit.

"Well, it's not actually a realistic thing to do," I assure them. "I'm just really lucky and blessed that my work is supporting me... the weird thing is that writing about technology turns out to be the one profession where I can actually do this and get paid for it."

"Wait, they're still paying you?"

"Wait, they're still paying you?"

Crazy, isn't it? Vox Media, the burgeoning online magazine empire that owns The Verge, cuts me a check twice a month — my full time salary — to write about not using the internet. They've been doing it for three months.

And it is going great. The experiment, that is.

The first two weeks were a zen-like blur. I've never felt so calm and happy in my life. Never. And then I started actually getting stuff done. I bought copies of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Aeschylus. I was writing at an amazing pace. For the first time ever I seemed to be outpacing my editors.

Without the internet, everything seemed new to me. Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred. Every conversation was face to face or a phone call, and filled with a hundred fresh nuances. The air smelled better. My sentences seemed less convoluted. I lost a bit of weight.

Three months later, I don't miss the internet at all. It doesn't factor into my daily life. I don't say to myself, "ugh, I wish I could just use the internet to do that." It's more like it doesn't exist for me. I still say "ugh, I have to do that" — it's just not the internet's fault.

But now that not having internet is no longer new, just normal, the zen calm is gone. I don't wake with the sunrise while chirping birds pull back the covers. I still have a job. I feel pressure and stress and frustration. I get lonely and bored. My articles aren't always submitted on time. Sometimes my sentences aren't good.

I'm just stock Paul Miller. No more Not-Using-The-Internet custom skin; I'm just myself. And it's not all sunshine and epiphanies.

"Disconnecting" and "disconnected" are two very different things

I know I'm not the first person to recognize this, but much of the charm in "taking a break from the internet" is that you end up viewing the real world through the prism of "I'm taking a break from the internet right now," and then you get back on the internet to tell everybody about what a good time you had. A face-to-face coffee date is very different than Facebook flirting, and a really great use of time, but it's easiest to see the novelty and value of it when you have a Facebook to compare it to. "Disconnecting" and "disconnected" are two very different things, as I'm discovering.

People ask me if I recommend taking a break from the internet. I do, but I don't think there's a rubber stamp-able routine. A lot of the people I know would be risking their livelihoods to take an entire evening off from email. And ultimately, it matters more why you take time off than how you do it. It's not about taking an hour long break from Twitter; it's about what you want to do during that hour that requires you to avoid Twitter. The novelty of cutting the cord only has so much mileage on its own.

For me, my time is no longer defined by the fact that it's spent without the internet. It's simply my time, and I have to fill it. The luxury that no internet has afforded me is that I feel like I have more time to fill, and fewer ways to fill it. It's the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others.

The other day I was at my coffee shop, about to make an order, when I got into a conversation with another regular. And then, a few minutes in, I felt a familiar internal tug. A chime inside said it was "time to get back." It's one of the last vestiges of my former mental patterns. I get a vague feeling on occasion that it's been a little while since I've looked at my instant messages, checked my email, scrolled through Twitter, or refreshed The Verge front page. "Someone on my computer must miss me," it seems to say. It's a combination of a fear of missing out, and a hope of being missed.

But nobody on my computer misses me anymore. I let out a small sigh. It hurts to be inessential. And then I was back in the moment. We were discussing reverse-engineering the Starbucks Frappuccino recipe, and he had some ideas. It was a good talk to have.

The luxury that no internet has afforded me is that I feel like I have more time to fill, and fewer ways to fill it

And if the talk isn't good? If the book I'm reading is difficult? If the writer's block is insurmountable? If I want to hang out but nobody picks up the phone? If I end up watching four hours of Olympic water polo by myself while eating donuts I bought at 7-11? There's still nobody on the computer waiting to love me, and I just have to deal with it.

I have zero regrets about leaving the internet. I'm only three months in, and I can honestly say that this is turning into the best year of my life. I'm vaguely famous, I've lost 10 pounds, and I've read a few classic books I've always wanted to spend time with. I think I'm on track to figure some stuff out about how to live in a modern society without being purely shaped by it. Not everything, but maybe just a little bit.

But I'm still Paul.

"I just wasn't made for these times," sing The Beach Boys. "Sometimes I feel very sad," goes the refrain, and sometimes I do, indeed, feel very sad. But after switching myself to a pre-internet era, I can assure you "these times" don't have much to do with it. It's just, you know, life.

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.