The unbearable lightness of the Internet

 Like real world junk food a spoonful of click-through sugar can be good for the soul every now and then.

Story highlights

  • Kristie Lu Stout: The Internet dominates our workspace and owns our life space as well
  • Many Americans spend at least eight hours a day staring at a computer or smartphone screen
  • Blogger Paul Miller decided on year-long self-imposed Internet ban to reclaim his life
  • "I know I am most productive when I don't have the Internet on. I disconnect," he says
This just in: Male Beliebers Exist.
I know this thanks to a monitor installed in the newsroom that flashes the very latest trending topics on Twitter.
What's trending, as I write this sentence? A few hashtag games like "#OverusedWords," a tribute to former teen queen Hilary Duff, "Hilary is our Cinderella," and "Male Beliebers Exist," a reference to obsessive fans of Justin Bieber.
On my desk I have a multitude of networked devices -- PC, iPhone, BlackBerry, iPad. No surprise there. The Internet dominates our workspace. But it literally owns our life space as well. Americans -- and that includes me -- spend at least eight hours a day staring at a screen. And more than one-third of smartphone users get online before they get out of bed.
We all know by now that the Internet is not just a means of communication. It's a parallel ecosystem, our digital state of nature. But how much of our Internet-based time is wasted time? And how much is absolutely integral to our daily lives?
DARPA may not have intended the Internet to be used this way, but I regularly find myself online to settle nagging pop culture questions. When was The Smiths' first concert appearance? Who wrote "Before Sunrise?" Did Gilda Radner ever guest star in "The Muppet Show?" A swift surf of or Wikipedia and *score* -- I have the answer. But then I end up wandering through various hyperlinks and suddenly it's 3:30 am and I'm watching back-to-back episodes of the Muppets in bed.
I often wonder what blogger Paul Miller would do. As he's on a year-long Internet fast, Miller would have to go to a local library and microfiche his way to pop culture know-how.
During his self-imposed Internet exile, Miller cannot browse the Web -- not even over someone's shoulder. He cannot access NetFlix or other forms of streaming media. Nor can he pay bills online or send a text message.
One month into his fast, I asked him why he decided to give up the Net for an entire year. "I just wanted some time to myself and do some personal study," he said.
"I know I am most productive when I don't have the Internet on. I disconnect, I unplug at a coffee shop with no Wi-Fi to get something done. So why not spend a year getting stuff done?"
He describes his first day off the Net as calm and Zen-like: "For me, it's such a relief. No one can get hold of me. No one can infringe on my time -- text message me, email me or pull me out of my head space."
But perhaps the greatest takeaway from talking to Miller and reading his regular updates, is knowing that the first generation to come of age on the Internet is becoming the first generation to realize that the Internet ain't all that.
"Maybe a generation before me or my parents see the Internet as this perfect modern convenience of getting things done. But I know a lot of people my age just live on the Internet, and it fills all their free time," he added.
"The big thing I'm trying to do is reclaim my free time. Right now, I'm bored a lot. I'm a little lonely too. But I'm learning to fill that in with things that are not like browsing Reddit or hanging on the Internet."
The Internet has become our hedge against solitude. I admit, I have been guilty of glancing at my smartphone to scroll down a social media feed and thus feel immediately plugged in. But over the years -- and especially since I've become a parent -- I've learned to wean myself away from an always online life to spend more face time with family, friends and real world things like parks, picnics and play dates.
And yet the Internet is just so seductive. Some crave the sweet lightness of an Instagram sunset. Many are addicted to social media's short-term rewards like scoring a re-tweet. And yes, a few of us enjoy an occasional hit of downward comparison by laughing at the mishaps of others on FAIL blog.
But in addition to the fluff and frivolity, our lives require meaning and significance. Thankfully, that does happen -- and often -- on the Internet. Collective action online has launched groundbreaking new projects, saved women from human trafficking and sparked a revolution.
But as much as we want to give our modern lives weight, it can't be just that. We desire the sweet frivolities of the Internet as well. And like real world junk food, a spoonful of click-through sugar can be good for the soul every now and then.
This just in: CNN anchor looks at FAIL blog. Occasionally. Only on Fridays.