Photo: Lucia Romero/Shutterstock

What the Internet Cannot Teach You

by Tereza Jarnikova Nov 4, 2013

1. The internet cannot teach you grit, which for these purposes I’m defining as keeping going when keeping going sucks. It can maybe motivate you with stories of people who are good at grit and a YouTube video that combines 40 inspirational speeches into the span of two minutes (seriously, watch said video when you next feel daunted by life — it will help).

But it cannot make for you the decision to get out of bed and run up mountains in the rain, or to try to go faster and further even though those things hurt, or in general to keep working on something you believe in when you’re exhausted and everyone around you says that either you can’t do it or it’s not worth doing. That decision occurs in a binary way in a non-measurable amount of time inside the solitude of an individual head.

Once, when I was 16, I quit running a race right out of the starting gate because I was scared of it. As a result, my team lost, and I regretted it, and all was not well with my high school self. Today, I am still only sometimes good at grit, and I’m still learning it, day by day, binary decision by binary decision. Sometimes, it can be hard to see the inherent merits of keeping going. Determining what those merits are, if they are worth keeping going for, and then doing that, occurs off the internet, in the infinitely private space of your own head.

2. The internet cannot explain anything you feel. It cannot explain why someone will be searingly, world-shatteringly angry at you for exactly 36 hours when you kiss someone else, nor can it draw for you the line after which you are not responsible for someone else’s feelings. It will not tell you how to feel after the person you’ve been talking to at a party goes to dance with someone else. It will not teach you empathy. It will not tell you when to marry, divorce, or have a child. It will not tell you how hearts break or mend or what to do about either of those things, though it can likely play you songs that will make you feel better, whether you’re 17 or 70.

It will, of course, have a million collections of two cents on all of this, interpersonal relationships being something of a common struggle for us humans. However, it will not feel these things for you, nor will it balance those feelings out. In short, on the stormy open sea of human heart-messes, you’re kind of on your own.

3. The internet cannot tell you what to pay attention to. In fact, I think the internet is often counterproductive when it comes to paying attention — on the internet, you have at your fingertips a million different things to listen to, look at, watch, or stare at halfheartedly on your coffee break. Some of them are important, some aren’t, but even ignoring anything you deem unimportant, there is enough neat stuff documented in the virtual world to keep you busy for more time than you have, so it’s up to you to choose what to see or hear.

Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by that infinity of choice and end up trying to pay attention to too many things at once, kind of unsatisfied by all of them, because all of them are interesting and none of them are entirely real. This is why I love being entirely off the internet, when one very real thing is occupying the entirety of my attention.

4. The internet cannot tell you what is important. This is a bit similar to the above point, but scaled up and sometimes more terrifying. I do not understand the point of life or how to live it. No one comes into the world knowing these things, but everyone eventually starts having an opinion about them.

The internet places a curtain between me and the physical world.

In kindergarten, they teach you to try to be nice and get along with others. Depending on where you grew up, different people who were older than you had, at some point, something to say about what is and isn’t important. Eventually you got to the point where you sorted this information out a bit. Some people sort it out decisively: For example, one of my friends, a very singular man, lives for metal and hardcore. He is a sound engineer, and his life is spent creating shows and going to them, sleeping at odd hours and traveling huge distances. He loves the most important thing in his life, a thing relatively few people have any interest in, so much that he is willing to let it shape everything he does. His is an unusual life, but a fascinating one.

I am not much like that — I’m slowly, painfully figuring out the things I want to invest myself in, and I know that it will be a process. What is important to any one person is a personal decision that’s constantly under revision. The internet can inform these decisions, but it cannot decide for anyone.

5. The internet does not root you in the physical world. In my life, this is perhaps the most negative aspect of the internet. The internet places a curtain between me and the physical world, hides me behind a wall of information. Much can be done behind that information wall — words written, views shaped, money exchanged. I can pay my taxes. I can call people I love 9,000 kilometers away and delight in their voices, and this is very important to me.

However, when I spend a lot of time using my computer, I create a barrier between myself and what is happening in the real world. I cannot bake bread on the internet. I cannot kiss someone. I cannot ride my bike until exhaustion, or feel frostbite, or smell soup cooking. This is obvious, and yet I need reminding of it, lest I spend my life holed away collecting words, images, and emotions. These things are great, but they are not the entirety of the world. There is, I feel, a limit to what words and concepts can give us — eventually we have to start learning lessons that can only be understood by existing in the physical world.

This is, I think, what everyone is getting at when they tell each other to unplug and go outside. I believe their point is valid.

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