Paul Miller, a writer for the Web site The Verge, has famously quit the Internet. For a year. I say famously, because every writer from The Verge that I follow is completely obsessed with this topic. While this is a site that normally operates like a Band of Brothers and Sisters on social networks, the level of buzz that Miller’s decision has garnered has been even more extreme. CNN covered this ‘event’ as news. Let me reiterate that I follow almost every writer from The Verge on Twitter, and I count quite a few of them as friends and the rest as respected colleagues. So I hope they’ll take this gentle ribbing in stride. But I must say, quitting the Internet is silly.
You see this sort of stunt all the time. Often, it happens on college campuses, but columnists and reporters will try the same concept. Someone gives up something for a length of time. For a while it was cell phones. Then, smartphones. Computers. Etc. I imagine that every major innovation has been accompanied by a stunt writer giving it up. The pocket calculator. The microwave. The color TV. I’m sure if you go back far enough, you’ll find papyrus scrolls filled with stories about giving up this new-fangled invention: the horse. Writers forcing themselves to walk everywhere in sandals, instead of riding on the backs of those darn contraptions, with their tails and their stinky droppings.
The appeal is obvious, especially for those of us who have lived through dramatic changes. Certainly the Internet represents a paradigmatic shift in global communication, the likes of which we have never seen before. Well, not since the telephone. Or the telegraph. Or the post office. Or, well . . . okay, at some point we weren’t able to talk to people across the globe, and now we can. And I’m sure when that happened, writers found themselves pitching their editors on stories about giving up stamps. Or messengers. Or those fires that they burn at the top of mountain peaks. Can you imagine living in medieval times and giving up mountain-peak-signal-fires? I certainly cannot.
It’s hard to live through change. You start to get whimsical. You start to feel claustrophobic, locked into the new way of communicating, the new way of living your life, and you long for the simpler times. In literary terms, this longing is known as a pastoral. The term pastoral comes from the word “pastor,” which is a shepherd herding a flock of sheep. Pasture comes from the same root. But in literature, the idea of a pastoral is the feeling that what we all really want to do with our lives is run away from civilization and just herd sheep. Doesn’t that sound nice? Just you and the sheep. And the grass. Rolling hillsides. Of course I’m imagining all of this taking place in New Zealand, so there are also hobbits there. But I don’t talk to the hobbits. I just tend my sheep.
Pastorals are not limited to sheep herding. Any situation in which you find yourself longing to leave the complexity of your life behind in favor of the simplicity of a zen existence is a pastoral. My favorite modern pastoral is the guy who works the night shift in the morgue. That would be a great job. So peaceful and quiet. Nobody to bother you. You could simply read books all day, or finish that novel you’re working on. All of your stress would disappear. Just think of it. Working in a morgue. Let that story play out in your head.
If you’re like me, that story always, without fail, ends in zombies. I can’t imagine myself really working in a morgue without imagining an outbreak of the living dead. That’s the problem with pastorals. In fact, that’s actually built into the idea of the pastoral, in literary terms. The pastoral always sounds nice, but in reality, we know that it can never truly make us happy. It sounds nice to live your life amongst the rolling hills of New Zealand. So quiet. Just you and the sheep. But the sheep need to be sheared. The sheep need to be tended, and moved about a bit to find good pasture land. It rains a lot. And you still have to make money off the sheep so you can eat. Or you have to kill one of your sheepy friends to eat them. Also, the hobbits, with their stupid “my precious” this, and “shire” that. It sounds nice, but it’s just a story we tell ourselves. It’s a form of nostalgia for a life we could have had. It’s remembering the moment we came to the crossroads, and took the path more traveled, and that has made all the difference.
Giving up the Internet is a pastoral. I respect the decision, and I’m curious about the story. But I think the exercise is ultimately pointless.
I once envisioned a similar story, but from the opposite angle. I read about a college professor who challenged his students to go smartphone-free for a month. I decided that I would try to live an entire month with a smartphone. I wouldn’t give it up, quite the opposite. I would make sure a smartphone would be ever-present in my life. I would sleep with a smartphone in my hand. I would use a waterproof smartphone in the shower. I would always have a smartphone on me, always charged and connected. I wouldn’t go anywhere without smartphone reception.
I didn’t write the story, in the end. Motorola made me send back the Defy review unit I had, their waterproof phone. Then I got a job at Samsung. We make a waterproof phone, too, but I was no longer a writer full time. I had joined the corporate world.
But I think my experiment would be more sound. What is there to learn from giving up the Internet for a year? Will Miller tell us how things were back in 1992? I was there. The music was good. But it was harder to keep in touch with friends. I had a cell phone then. It was the size of a small suitcase. It cost $1 per minute to use, after the monthly fee.
Will Miller tell us what it’s like to live in 2012 without the Internet? Why bother? We have the Internet. We will always have the Internet. We’re never going back. We’re never giving it up. When the Internet goes down, for us locally or even on a global scale, we will not revert to some pre-Netscape existence where we start calling 411 again and send letters by licking a stamp. We’ll instead lament the fact that the Internet is down, and we’ll work very hard to fix it.
I just find the prospect of examining a modern life without the Internet to be very dull. I want to know what the future is going to be like. What will life be like when our cell phones are contact lenses that we wear on our eyes? What will it be like when we pay with implants in our fingertips, or talk through wireless communicators in our brains? How will we think about transportation when our cars can do all the driving for us? How will we eat when we start drinking our own recycled bodily fluids, stillsuit-style? That’s what I’m curious about. Thinking about a world without an Internet is like visiting one of those villages full of actors who pretend to live in the past. Oh, that’s how they made butter. Oh, that’s how they fixed a shirt. What, they didn’t have lightbulbs? No way. Can we go now? I saw an In-N-Out on the way over, and I want to stop for a double double.
Please, if you read this, don’t send it to Paul Miller. He has enough to deal with. He’s had to resort to turning in his work on flash drives. Flash Drives! Can you imagine it? How very 2004 of him. I’m not sure how he’ll manage, playing X-Box without 13 years olds spewing racist, homophobic slurs at him. Is he single? How do people date without the Internet? Do bars still exist? If he orders a pizza from Dominoes, how will he know if it’s on its way!?! Will he have to guess? Wait by the door for 30 minutes? I couldn’t live like that. I’d rather just quit my job and work in the morgue. You’ll find me in the basement, with my pad and paper, and my shotgun.