So after all this what does it mean to long for the real?
I came to a bench and decided to stop. I had biked from my house in the city through the crowded streets at rush hour, passed my university, and joined the solitary path that abuts the river. I intentionally left my smartphone at home, not wanting to be accosted by calls or my own pining to use it for this or that amazing purpose. No. Because I couldn’t access the fitness center I like to use at this time of day, I had set off on a bike ride that was meant to be a bike ride; and it was that, basically, except for the way in which it was also meant to be a workout, measured by the output of strenuousness divided by allotted time until my next scheduled task.
I saw the bench at a clearing where a large bridge lurches across the Genesee. It seemed perfectly situated there, but I did not see how perfect it was until I stopped my bike and kicked down my kickstand. This particular bench faces two other bridges that crisscross the Genesee and the Erie Canal in a majestic loop of interstices. Rowers on the girl’s team whooshed by as I sat down, and in the distance I could see a blue crane in the water that shined against the surrounding trees like a riverboat I once saw on the Mississippi. Hastily, I imagined it billowing steam.
“This is real,” I thought as I felt my shoulders loosen. But my immediate next thought was “wouldn’t it be nice to have a picture?” and “why didn’t I bring my smartphone?” Through my sunglasses the clouds above the crisscrossing bridges swirled with delicate hues of purple, pink-orange, and what I initially wanted to call bronze. Raising my glasses above my eyes for a moment I realized these were phantom colors; my unadulterated vision saw a spectrum barely broader than faded white to blue. I lowered my glasses back down and appreciated the illusion. It would have been a good picture if I’d brought my smartphone.
But I didn’t, and I wanted not to. I had been inspired at first when I read Paul Miller’s recent account of the year he spent unplugged from the Internet. He records his journey in an essay called “I’m Still Here: Back Online After a Year Without the Internet,” which theverge.com published on May 1, 2013. Miller’s experiment was motivated by a sense of unreality that many Millennials feel; just this past week Joel Stein of Time magazine called us the “Me, Me, Me Generation” (5/20/13) and diagnosed our angst as the product of too much abundance and too little common culture. (“It’s hard…to join the counterculture when there’s no culture,” is my favorite line from the article.)
At 27, Miller, who writes about technology for The Verge, would appear to fit this bill to a T, and he starts by listing the woes that are the tasteless bread and butter of our perennially distracted, perennially full generation: “I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. ‘Real life,’ perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.”
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, Miller pulled the plug on his Ethernet cable. Initially he was beside himself with joy. “I did stop and smell the flowers,” he writes. “My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge.”
It appeared that he had escaped his earlier self and the dismal sheen through which he felt his life had become less real. But alas, that was only the beginning of his odyssey through unreality. In prose that rings with the faint overtones of Shakespearean tragedy, Miller recounts his fall from Luddite splendor, culminating in his recognition that it is he who is to blame for his bad habits, not, after all, the Internet. Consequently, he must come “Back to Reality,” as he puts it in one of the subheadings of his essay. “My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the ‘real’ Paul and get in touch with the ‘real’ world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet.”
The Internet, it turns out, is only a means to an end; unhappiness, in all its shapes and generational sizes, is the product of human, all-too-human longings.
Amid much fanfare on The Verge, Miller came back online on the one-year anniversary of his big disconnect. The site had featured frequent updates while he was “away,” beginning with a live webcast on the night he left. But on May 1 it uploaded a 16-minute documentary called “Finding Paul Miller” to accompany his essay announcing he’s still here. In one especially heartfelt scene, Miller tries to explain to his 5-year-old niece, Keziah, what the Internet is, and this crystallizes his epiphany:
She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”
Miller longs for the real, indeed. And in this spirit he rejoins the online community for all our sakes, sacrificing himself for our collective digital sins.
“When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel. But at least I’ll be connected.”
Back to reality, back to this bench.
Maybe in moments when the wind blows and I wonder if I should stop writing so I can experience reality more fully, I should thank someone or something I’m alive. Like the Internet, only not. Paul Miller knows. He’s wearing sunglasses, too.