In 2012, Paul Miller, a 26-year-old journalist and former writer for The Verge, began to worry about the quality of his thinking. His ability to read difficult studies or to follow intricate arguments demanding sustained attention was lagging. He found himself easily distracted and, worse, irritable about it. His longtime touchstone—his smartphone—was starting to annoy him, making him feel insecure and anxious rather than grounded in the ideas that formerly had nourished him. “If I lost my phone,” he said, he’d feel “like I could never catch up.” He realized that his online habits weren’t helping him to work, much less to multitask. He was just switching his attention all over the place and, in the process, becoming a bit unhinged.
Subtler discoveries ensued. As he continued to analyze his behavior, Miller noticed that he was applying the language of nature to digital phenomena. He would refer, for example, to his “RSS feed landscape.” More troubling was how his observations were materializing not as full thoughts but as brief Tweets—he was thinking in word counts. When he realized he was spending 95 percent of his waking hours connected to digital media in a world where he “had never known anything different,” he proposed to his editor a series of articles that turned out to be intriguing and prescriptive. What would it be like to disconnect for a year? His editor bought the pitch, and Miller, who lives in New York, pulled the plug.
For the first several months, the world unfolded as if in slow motion. He experienced “a tangible change in my ability to be more in the moment,” recalling how “fewer distractions now flowed through my brain.” The Internet, he said, “teaches you to expect instant gratification, which makes it hard to be a good human being.” Disconnected, he found a more patient and reflective self, one more willing to linger over complexities that he once clicked away from. “I had a longer attention span, I was better able to handle complex reading, I did not need instant gratification, and,” he added somewhat incongruously, “I noticed more smells.” The “endless loops that distract you from the moment you are in,” he explained, diminished as he became “a more reflective writer.” It was an encouraging start.
But if Miller became more present-minded, nobody else around him did. “People felt uncomfortable talking to me because they knew I wasn’t doing anything else,” he said. Communication without gadgets proved to be a foreign concept in his peer world. Friends and colleagues—some of whom thought he might have died—misunderstood or failed to appreciate Miller’s experiment. Plus, given that he had effectively consigned himself to offline communications, all they had to do to avoid him was to stay online. None of this behavior was overtly hostile, all of it was passive, but it was still a social burden reminding Miller that his identity didn’t thrive in a vacuum. His quality of life eventually suffered.
Miller recalled the low point of this period of social isolation. He was walking to the subway one evening with several friends. When they reached the platform, his companions did as he once would have done: they whipped out their smartphones and went into other worlds. Feeling awkward, he stood on the platform, looked into his empty hand, and simulated using a smartphone. “I now called it my dumb phone,” he said. When the offline year ended, he was relieved.
In a recent New Yorker piece (“Pond Scum,” October 19), Kathryn Schulz takes a twenty-first-century hammer to a nineteenth-century nail, pounding Henry David Thoreau into submission. In addition to Thoreau’s supposed arrogance, self-righteousness, narcissism, parochialism, isolationism, and apparent embrace of every “ism” against humanity, there’s one particular flaw in Thoreau’s character that Schulz finds particularly galling: The man didn’t much care for coffee. “I cannot,” she writes, “idolize anyone who opposes coffee.”
It’s a fine quip, the kind that leavens so much of Schulz’s other work (I’m a fan of her book Being Wrong) and the kind that inspires me to retort, in equally playful fashion, that the sawdust and chicory-laden brew available in Thoreau’s day can’t fairly be compared to the tony aromatic blend that I assume perks Schulz to life every morning. Please, let us not become ahistorical about coffee!
Unfortunately, Schulz has done more than condemn the beverage preference of a man known as the father (or at least legal guardian) of environmentalism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism. She’s undertaken a coordinated assault on the gentleman’s character, not to mention his political philosophy and historical legacy. The best thing that can be said about Schulz’s casting of Thoreau as a “thoroughgoing misanthrope” is that her skepticism of the man is obscured by overstatement.
Schulz’s assessment of Thoreau’s social life offers the most obvious case in point. Early on, she observes that Thoreau saw human companionship as “at best a time consuming annoyance.” Thoreau’s acquaintances “had the same moral status [to him] as doormats.” He was, she adds, a “castaway from the rest of humanity.” But later, while mocking his pseudo-wilderness “ersatz experience” as “cabin porn,” she documents a different Thoreau. This one walked to Concord “several times a week, lured by … the chance to dine with friends.” This one was a guy who “routinely hosted other guests … sometimes as many as thirty at a time.” This one, in other words, hardly sounds like an asocial crank. So when Schulz starts dissing Thoreau for his inconsistencies, it’s clear that a deeper—one might say blinding—discontent is driving the analysis.
During mile 1 of my first 50-mile race, as darkness lifted from a perfect Vermont morning, I did what a lot of people do when they think they might be in over their head—I started talking to strangers.
By mile 5, I had acquaintances. By mile 10, I had friends. By mile 12, I had advice. Lots of it. Be patient. There’s no rush. Walk the hills. Eat a lot. Eat gummy bears. Don’t stress. Just look at this as a day when you get to run for 10 hours without guilt. I obeyed all of it.
By mile 31, I put on a fresh pair of shoes and socks—taken from a bag we were allowed to send ahead to ourselves—in addition to a foil-wrapped bean burrito that I’d stuffed into one of the shoes the night before.
I was moving through the woods with the purest joy, deeply at ease with the elemental act of running. In fact, somewhere around mile 27, I decided that this was the kind of running I really loved. No more obsessing over pace. No strategizing except to finish. Lots of down time at rest stops. Plenty of socializing. Yes, from now on, this is what I would do. Ultra marathoning. I was converted.
I lay down in a field of grass and bit off the end the burrito. Considering the infrequency with which I saw port-o-cans, I decided that this first bite should be the last bite, so I shoved the burrito back into the humid well of one of my used shoes (which the race organizers would ferry back to the finish), laced up my fresh shoes, ate a Clif Bar, and ran on, now more in my head than in over it.
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