Humans forgot how to be offline


When I was a teenager, in the 1990s, going online -- connecting to the Internet -- was something you had to actively choose to do.

The default state of being human was, as it had been for the entirety of history, "offline."  Want to send an email?  First thing's first, you needed to consciously take the step to go online, typically via a dial-up modem on an analogue phone line.  When you were done sending said email, you disconnected.  And, like magic, the natural state of being offline was re-established.

Having dinner with friends or family?  You're offline.

Going for a walk to the park?  Offline.

Shopping, using a restroom, watching a TV show, commuting to work, and (in most cases) working at your job... all offline.

Flash forward to 2019, and the inverse is true.  We are, as human beings, almost perpetually connected to the Internet... our default state has become "online."

Even when using a restroom.  (You know it's true.)

It is now so rare to be offline -- and so difficult to achieve a truly offline state -- that many consider a lack of Internet access to be a sort of unusual vacation (or form of torture).  To be disconnected from email, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), YouTube, and so many other online services has become a significant challenge.

  • Want to buy toys for your kids?  Most big toy stores have closed... gotta hop online.
  • Want to read your favorite magazine?  Odds are that it's either ceased publication entirely... or it's only available online in digital form.
  • The school my daughter goes to require the parents to create and manage accounts on 4 different websites to handle registration and talking with the teachers.  Four websites.  Required.  To go to school.

I'm sure we could all come up with numerous examples of ways in which living a regular life, completely sans-Internet, has become an almost impossible task nowadays.  All of which makes it increasingly challenging to simply... disconnect.  Even for a limited period of time.

Now, we could list out all the ways that the Internet has been used to harm our lives: enabling online-activation, DRM, the removal of almost all privacy, enabling social media, etc..  And we could flip it around and list out all the ways the Internet has improved things: increased speed of communication, making it easier to move large amounts of data, etc..

But that leads to an argument about whether or not the Internet is a net positive or negative thing.  Do the positives outweigh the negatives?  I'm going to posit that the answer to that question is somewhat irrelevant.  There's simply no real point in even having that debate, because...

We, as human beings, were not built to be always "online."

Being online, for a human, is sort of like swimming in the ocean: We can do it... for limited amounts of time.  Some of us can stay afloat a bit longer than others but, Kevin Costner notwithstanding, eventually we need to head back to land to dry off.

Stay swimming in the ocean too long, and things just aren't gonna go your way.

The pure fact is that human beings (certainly, at least, in our current state) don't handle being in constant contact with hundreds (and thousands) of people -- all at the same time -- very well.  No.  That's a gross understatement.  We handle it astoundingly poorly.  Our brains (and bodies) simply are not designed for it.

Imagine yourself in the middle of a parking lot.  Filled not with cars, but people.  People everywhere.  Every square inch is packed with thousands upon thousands of humans.  All of them shouting to get your attention -- about a wide variety of topics -- all at once.

That's what the Internet has become.

Family, friends, co-workers, bosses, internet "friends" and followers, random people that saw your comment about Star Wars and now demand you talk to them about it, every person who disagrees with your political or religious beliefs... and that doesn't even begin to include all the companies and organizations you do business with (stores, utilities, travel, etc.).

It is utter chaos.  And, more to the point, it makes our lives worse.  Increasing stress levels.  Increasing rates of depression.  Lowering our time and energy to do things that are offline (also known as "real things in the real world").

And, here's the fun part: There's no way to fix it.

Sure, some companies and software projects try to ease the pain of the deluge of communication coming from the Internet.  Make things 0.3% simpler here and there.  But, the truth is, humans just weren't built to function like this.  We need quiet time.

We need to be disconnected.

Being disconnected -- like we were for roughly 100% of all human history -- feels good.  It feels... right.  Gives us a chance to breathe, to think, to observe, to talk in a one-on-one way with others.

In order to truly connect with the world -- and other humans -- we must... disconnect.

This isn't a new thought.  In the late 90s and early 2000's we all knew that being online too much was a problem.  We cautioned against it.  "The Internet is great... look at all it enables us to do," we said.  "Just be sure to disconnect, hang up that modem, and go do something else as much as you can."

Somewhere, over the last 20 or so years, we forgot that lesson.  We decided that every one of us must have always connected computers (or smart phones) in our pockets at all times.  That using a laptop or desktop computer was pointless without good WiFi.  And, to be sure, we couldn't possibly be productive without an Internet connection.

We forgot a central part of how to be human: to be truly offline.

What got us to this point is, in my opinion, a common human reaction to the invention of a new technology: We over-use it.

Cars are a great example of this.  The invention of the automobile was an amazing moment in human history -- cars (and trucks, etc.) made so many things not just easier... but possible.  Then we, as humans, over-used it.  Not only does every family need a car... every adult needs their own.  And people stop simply... walking places.  We stopped connecting with the world around us as much, and we all (by and large) got less healthy in the process.

Antibiotics are another area where we saw something good... and used it way, way too much.  I don't think there's a single person that will say "Antibiotics are bad" -- heck, they've saved my life on more than one occasion.  But then doctors began prescribing them for just about every ailment under the sun.  Even going so far as to often prescribe them as preventative measures.  The end result is a surge in antibiotic resistant bacteria that pose a massive threat to the health and lives of all humans.

It's what we do.  We invent something cool -- something that, used sparingly, makes our lives better -- then we use it 10x more than it should be used.  Thus turning a great thing into a living horror.

That's what we've done with the Internet.  We took something great (dare I say, amazing), and we're turning it into a negative thing through over-use.

As for a solution to this problem... I'm honestly unsure.  Perhaps we need to set personal limits to the amount of time we spend online each day.  Not unlike a parent limiting how much "screen time" or "TV time" a kid can have.  But, you know, for the Internet.  And self-imposed.

Maybe an hour each day to hop online.  Check email, sync with your online file storage, chat with a friend, play a couple rounds of a game, then jump offline.  Back to the real world.

Seems like an almost crazy limitation, doesn't it?  Limiting your Internet time?!  Preposterous!  And, perhaps, that's a good indication that it's time for a bit of an intervention. 


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