When We Hate What We Love

Paul Miller got paid to stay off the Internet. For a whole year he drew a salary to remain offline and to record the experience of living disconnected. For a whole year he abandoned email and Twitter, blogs and Google Maps, Skype and Facebook, and all the other digital destinations that have become so much a part of our lives. 365 days later he sat down to record his experiences in what has become one of those articles everyone is talking about.

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As his journey began, he forecasted that at the end of the year he would be telling us his year away had refreshed and recharged him, it had proven our new technologies are destroying our lives and our communities, disconnecting had give him the peace he was looking for, the enlightenment he longed for.

But such lessons were not easy to come by. At first he enjoyed his break from modern life. He got more active and lost weight and found ways of connecting and reconnecting with family and friends. Without the Internet to distract him he found renewed vigor to visit people in their homes and to get out into the community. For a while the experience seemed to deliver what it had promised.

But not for a long. Soon he had to admit, “I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.” The good habits he formed after unplugging soon fell by the wayside and he realized they had been attractive for a time more for their contrast with the digital life than for their intrinsic value. Soon these things, too, lost their luster. He was right back where he began, albeit offline.

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. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.

He thought that real life was to be found offline but discovered that the lines are not quite so clear. There is value in connecting face-to-face and in being present offline. But much of the Internet is also relational. The Internet is people. He was as lonely offline as he had been online. Unplugging alone was not a remedy to relationship, to productivity, or to much of anything else.

The big lesson he draws from all of this feels awfully unsatisfying.

What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible, and who can fix it.

It has long fascinated me that our technologies don’t do anything to us that we don’t want. We can say we hate the Internet or email or cell phones, but if we hated them as much as we insist, we’d do something about them. We may hate them, but we love them just a little bit more.

At the end of Miller’s article, at the end of his year, he realizes that so much comes down to motivation. He has his priorities in order but he doubts that he will have the motivation to keep them there. There is a note of despair and disillusionment. Online was discouraging so he ran away from it, only to find that the alternative was equally discouraging. He still hasn’t found what he was looking for. There is no simple or immediate solution.

I believe there is a solution and the solution is to think well about technology, to apply the Bible to technology. This was the very reason I wrote The Next Story. I so badly wanted to have the Bible teach me how I should think about technology, to help understand why I am so dedicated to it, and to show me why I believe that my deepest problems are only ever one new gadget away from being solved, that humanity’s hope will sooner or later appear in the Best Buy catalog. Miller shows that our problems go far deeper than our devices. Buying more of them or abandoning them altogether are equally futile. Every challenge that may come by way of this fast-paced, digital world is addressed in the words of a book that is thousands of years old.