When toddlers are getting addicted to iPads, parents spy on their kids on Facebook and teenagers can’t survive 24 hours offline without experiencing withdrawal symptoms it’s hard not to blame technology.

After all, we wouldn’t be experiencing these problems without technology, so it must be technology which causes them, right?

“Fitter, Happier, More Productive”

While the symptoms can be very real, we need to reevaluate the way the understand connected computing in general and Social Media in particular. Many people still frame their online experiences in terms of pre-online existence. For example, we tend to see ourselves as separate from the media we use. When we’re reading a newspaper we’re not not reading a newspaper. When we’re watching television, we’re not not watching television. And when we’re online, we’re not offline, or are we?

Digital Dualism is a term coined by Nathan Jurgenson, founder of the Cyborgology blog and is defined as follows:

Digital dualism is the belief that the on and offline are largely separate and distinct realities. Digital dualists view digital content as part of a “virtual” world separate from a “real” world found in physical space.

Digital dualism is the idea that if only we could detach ourselves from our screens and newsfeeds, we would be fitter, happier, more productive, in short: more human, more real.

The Offline Garden Of Eden

Last year, tech writer Paul Miller decided to test this asssumption by disconnecting one year from the internet and document his experience. According to his own words, he felt that the internet was an “unnatural state” and he “wanted a break from modern life”. So he pulled the plug.

the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.”

At first he felt exhilarated, eager to read more books, meet more people face to face and write more. But when he started receiving readers’ comments by snail mail, dozens per week, he suddenly felt the same stress like when dealing with his email inbox. And it wasn’t much longer before the paradise of an internet-free existence unraveled:

“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”

Instead of wasting time online, he learned to be unproductive offline by watching movies, playing video games, sleeping.

Head-On Collisions With The Man in The Mirror

Since the symptoms always appear alongside technology, we tend to confuse cause and context. We like the idea of “Digital Sabbaticals”, of offline living, of “digital detox”, not because offline life is so spectacular (it’s actually rather bland); we only fantasize about being disconnected because we are so connected.

The great media theorist Marshall Mcluhan prophesized all of this already in the early 60s. He was a popular guest in talk shows and widely discussed, but rarely understood.

Personally, I have been observing my technology and media usage with a critical eye since I started working online full-time. I noticed the stress of Social Media and email, of bad habits and effects on my health such as sitting too long and strained eyes. I experimented with unplugging for one or two days during the weekend. Ultimately, I had to admit, though, just like Paul Miller that “there’s a lot of ‘reality’ in the virtual, and a lot of ‘virtual’ in our reality”.

It’s not possible to make a neat split between being offline and online. When we are online we think about our offline lives and vice versa. Binge watching a new TV series on Netflix is not caused by Netflix. Wasting time on Facebook is not the fault of Mark Zuckerberg. Technology is like a mirror. It just reveals our human nature, and there is nothing more surprising, more humbling than when who we think we are collides with who we really are. Yes, we are often lazier, greedier, angrier and less social than we like to admit – and yes, we are also more ambitious, modest, peaceful and more talkative than we might think.

On a more practical note, the real issue here is not one of offline vs. online, of connected vs. disconnected. It’s simply one of time-management, discipline and practice (sounds fun, right?). There are tons of books and blogs about it. In the end, though, it’s about actually doing something.

UPDATE: see also this short documentary about Paul Miller’s offline year:

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