Sunday, September 29, 2019

Away from Keyboard: Embracing Slow Tech


So I've been offline a lot in the last few weeks.  While I think I can say I've successfully relegated my phone back to the status of a phone instead of a tiny monitor that never leaves the palm of my hand, I still feel the siren call of the internet when I'm working on my computer.  

And I have to work on my computer.  


I have to do things like design websites, write manuscripts, edit photos, produce videos and update online shops.  Even when I'm just writing -- something that in itself doesn't require WiFi -- as much as I wish I could just open a Word document and write uninterruptedly and without distraction, like Henry David scribbling in a notebook beside  his famous pond, there's always that damned web browser singing so sweetly from just beyond the margins, beckoning me to swim out for a little while...

 And before I know it, what I convince myself is just a little harmless "research" for a project or quick look at the news turns into a soul-crushing dive into the miasma of pop culture, politics, propaganda and consumerism.  

I can put my now nearly app-free phone on airplane mode, tuck it away and not miss it, but it's hard to get rid of the web when I work... because it's where I work.  The irony of writing about this on a blog (a blog!) is not lost on me.  (And it's actually kind of meta.)

We are all forced to plug into a version of the Matrix for huge amounts of time every day.  "Smart" technology guarantees that even more of our lives will become inextricably connected online, and while transhumanists may cheer, it all makes me feel dizzy, synthetic and lost.  Virtual life is already grafted to almost every aspect of what's real, and while I can't stop it, I can be extremely intentional about spending as much free time as I can offline.  I can choose real life without a digital trail of social media posts or Siri's assistance or even a recently updated version of Google Maps.

When I first started doing this, it felt really weird.  Maybe you've felt it too.  The first few days without a phone are kind of like being stranded alone on a deserted island.  If you don't look at your friends' Instagram accounts, your friends basically  disappear.  If you don't text people, you don't talk to people.  Without constantly looking down, you look around...and rarely does someone look back because they're all looking down.  It's lonely and strange and it seems to bend time to almost intolerable curving stretches of inactivity.  Without scrolling Twitter in line at the grocery store, you actually have to be alone.  With your thoughts.  You have to think about stuff for all the time it takes for everyone else ahead of you to put down their phones while they fumble getting their chip debit cards to work in the reader.  It's odd and alienating!  And the guy in front of you is posting about how long the line is and/or how bad chip readers are!

What happens next is even weirder.  The more you choose to unplug, the more you realize that most everyone else is happily staying plugged right where they are. You might learn to leave your phone on airplane mode, but you still run home and open up the laptop just to find out what everyone is talking about!  This week I found out everyone is talking about Dark Mode.  

Finally my eyes don't feel like they're being abused!  They tweet. 

Finally everyone can spend even more time staring at screens...  

But I'm not trying to lead an analog revolution -- and anyway, if Che Guevara were alive today his Twitter account would be huge and he'd probably host The Motorcycle Podcast.  What I am trying to do is reconnect with things that don't require battery power or WiFi or Dark Mode.  And when I do go back online, as we all inevitably have to do, I am trying to not get sucked into neverending, dehumanizing streams.  

In the last few weeks I have spent a lot of time offline thinking about how to make my online life better.  I was inspired by this article by Wired journalist Casey Chin.  The phrase "artisinal internet" really resonates with me.  While the slow tech movement has not (yet) gained the traction of the slow food movement, I feel like our numbers are growing.

"When every aspect of our behavior online is surveilled and monetized," Chin writes, "the prospect of clean living sounds sweet."

Yes, it does.  And when Wired magazine itself starts talking about being less plugged in, we really must be at the brink of a paradigm shift.  

For those who aren't yet ready to turn away from nonstop social media, the concept of slow mornings seems to strike a chord.  Waiting to grab your phone in the morning when you wake up seems like a good idea, but many of us  struggle with it.  I loved this article by Andrew Zaleski.  

"The digital world is both Henry and Hal," Zaleski writes, "a delightful, informative space that enriches users as well as drags them into baseless diversion.  Striking a balance is becoming increasingly important for people who want to embrace the realities of modern living while still remaining healthy and burnout-free."  

How can we find the balance?  Waking up and choosing not to scroll is a really good place to start.  (I include a version of this idea in my Quickstart to Unplugging.) 

I also recently read a wonderful book that addresses not only internet overwhelm but fast-paced modern life in general.  Slow, by Brooke McAlary is a wonderful little meditation on slow living that you can read in an internet-free afternoon. What is slow living?  According to McAlary:  "It's a way to find happiness by stepping away from the never-ending demands to constantly succeed and acquire more and more.  It's easy to get stuck in the carousel of frantically wanting, buying, and upgrading the things in your life.  The philosophy of simple living is about finding the freedom to be less perfect, and taking time to enjoy the pure joys of life."

While many minimalist authors recommend a stripped-down austerity that feels far too ascetic for me -- I'm way more hygge than minimalist -- McAlary's slow philosophy feels cozy and relaxing and wonderfully human.


As for trying to find an approximation of Thoreau's distraction-free writing at Walden Pond, I have landed upon a wonderful tool.  The Alphasmart Neo is an early 2000s electronic word processor designed by Apple engineers to help Y2k middle schoolers learn to type.  Now, it allows burned-out, distracted writers a chance to work uninterrupted, and later upload files to Word.  You can read my rave, rave review of it here.

Check out my library for more books to inspire your search for a slower, more human, less digital, more analog life.  For a clue as to what kind of things I've been doing offline, just watch my video at the top of this post. (And look here.)

Until next time, I'm AFK. 

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