Even though the world wide web has steadily penetrated each aspect of our life since its inception at CERN, it seems that today we still refer to digital technology as existing in a world other than our own. Instead we inhabit the seperate realms of ‘digital’ and ‘real’. Although we focus on bringing down the barriers between these worlds, it may be they’ve already totally merged, without us even noticing. Has the digital fabric of technology inextricably integrated with our lives, or might we still be able to live without it?
Last year, Paul Miller, a tech blogger at The Verge, asked himself a similar question. He disconnected himself from the internet, kicking off a year of ‘offline’ existence. A year of unbridled potential, away from the ‘unnatural’ internet. Miller set to discover what the internet had done to him, by studying it from a distance. He would try to understand the ways in which internet was corrupting us, and enable us to fight back against its influence.
Although the first months started out like Miller expected, with many physical and intellectual activities, he soon discovered disconnecting from the internet was about more than just ‘pulling the plug’. He unplugged part of the world. Friends dropped out of contact or faded away, with Miller noting that “I can tell you that a ‘Facebook friend’ is better than no friend”. He came to the conclusion that the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, but something we do with each other. Or, as sociology student Nathan Jurgenson told him, “there’s a lot of ‘reality’ in the virtual, and a lot of ‘virtual’ in our reality.” Paul had wanted to leave the internet; find the ‘real’ him and the ‘real’ world, while in the end both were already inseparably linked to the internet.
Technology and with it the digital technology of the past years continue to shape our environment and us as human beings, whether we view this as a positive development or not. Although not all of us may feel their lives are as connected to the internet as Paul’s – as I found out while talking to people of other generations – this real-life story provides a fascinating insight into a common fantasy of a less-complicated world. A world that, without certain technology, may actually prove more complex and less complete than before.
Paul Miller has fully rejoined the 21st century since May 1 this year, but you can still read all of his offline exploits and reflections here: http://www.theverge.com/2012/5/8/3007525/paul-miller-offline.
If you’re interested in exploring more about a world devoid of technology, Kevin Kelly’s essay here on Next Nature is the way to go: https://www.nextnature.net/2009/10/the-world-without-technology/