Paul Miller

Reporting from his Internet blackout, Paul Miller writes:

What I do know is that I’m a lot more “smart” in an internet culture than in this written culture I’ve exiled myself to. In an internet culture, it matters more that I know where the facts can be found, and how to piece them together, curate, and redistribute, than how long I can keep my head submerged in 300 pages of non-fiction. When reading news on the internet, I’m defined by my filters, but when reading a newspaper, I’m defined by my patience for skimming through stories about crises in the Middle East.

I’ve found myself buying books on sprees that have more similarity to opening multiple tabs in a browser than the actions of a rational shopper. I page through my magazines like an RSS reader, where “marking read” means reading the headline, not necessarily reading the article. I’ve long since run out of shelf space for new titles, I’m a few pages into a few dozen books, ranging from Plato’s Meno to John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, and I’ve thrown away numerous issues of The New Yorker that I’ve never even observed the table of contents of. I seem to be collecting more rubber bands than facts from my New York Times subscription. I’m drowning.

When reflecting upon Paul’s endeavor, I hadn’t quite appreciated the self-inflicted blindness that such a decision might entail. Bereft of connections to Wikipedia, Google, and whatever other means we have assembled for attaining knowledge, Paul has lost the means for quickly and easily getting ahold of information — both serious and incidental.

I remember, years ago, for matters of immaterial trivia, my friends and I would often send a text message to a service based in England. You could ask a question, and in return you’d receive an answer within the character limit. Although such a service has been quickly antiquated by ubiquitous connections, I remember the distinct sense of power that such a service extended to its users. Suddenly, regardless of your level of comprehension of a topic, anyone could “knowledgeably” chime in on a discussion.

In many respects, this false sense of knowledgeability has been perpetuated by the Internet, and our always-on culture. Much as people often criticize calculators in the classroom for removing the difficulties of working through problems, smartphones coupled with Wikipedia have enhanced our respective senses of intelligence. In my memory, I can’t think of anyone that has challenged or questioned the ramifications of such a state of affairs, but I imagine it’s likely to become one of the most important issues in modern education.

Despite the initial swelling of aggression toward Paul’s life-sans-Internet experiment, I continue to be fascinated by his findings. The Internet does, indeed, enhance our lives — and it will continue to do so — but it’s endlessly important to consider what such enhancement entails.