The rotary phone: Now, that’s *really* slow media

Sometimes, when people react to my Slow Media project, they make me feel like the grumpy old duffer in this video, who thinks all the whippersnappers nowadays "care more about being modern than about getting three square meals."

He's irritated by the prospect of his home getting one of those new-fangled dial phones. Why, his old device is only thirty years old, and it works perfectly fine! Who needs a dial anyway, when there's an operator to connect your call? (Think of all the jobs killed by dial phones; they must be like the ATMs of telephony.)

This appears to be part of a series on "Modern Wonders" such as the record player, electric stove, and reel-to-reel tape. I'm not sure what year this was, maybe around 1930. The whole 10-minute clip is devoted to dial phones, and that's just Part 1. The second part spends another 10 minutes showing grandpa how to — wait for it — dial his own phone.

The library of the subconscious

MediatedEnoughParadoxofchoice InpraiseofslownessCultofinformation
There's a small pile of books accumulating on my shelves… stuff that I've been buying and hording (i.e. not reading) for the past few years, for no particular purpose. I call it my library of the subconscious. Since I've started this blog about digital detoxification, though, it's obvious that a theme is emerging. Can you see what it is?

  • The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More (Barry Schwartz)
  • In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (Carl Honore)
  • Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (Bill McKibben)
  • Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It (Thomas De Zengotita)
  • The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking (Theodore Roszak)

Maybe the slow media diet will give me an opportunity to finally consume these things. A few other ones that I'm looking forward to reading soon: Against Technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism (Steven E. Jones), The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand Year Journey to Your Inbox (John Freeman), You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Jared Lanier).

Speaking of books, I just re-read this great one called The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage,
who considers telegrams as a historical analogy for e-mails and text
messages. The author recounts how people of the mid-19th-century were
originally skeptical about the telegraph and wondered why anyone would need, or
want, to send instantaneous messages over long distances.

And this was at a time when it took the Pony Express at least 10 days to deliver
letters from Missouri to California! Back then, boosters believed wholeheartedly that the telegraph would usher in an era of worldwide peace, love and understanding. Sheesh, 175 years and counting… Where's our global village, already? Maybe it's time we admit that more information and faster communication is not the solution.

I recall saying something along those lines to the dissertation committee at my oral exam — joking that the world's information problems had been solved and I should shift my focus to transit issues, since transportation is clearly more intractable. The room full of journalism and sociology professors laughed heartily, whether at the truth or the absurdity of it, I can't say.

My Slow Media diet: How will it work? For how long?

I've been referring to my pending experiment as a digital media fast, or something like that. I'm thinking, though, that terms like "abstinence," "avoidance" and "fast" focus too much on what's lost instead of calling attention to what's gained. Namely, the time to pursue a host of other things. It's been a long time since I read a novel… or practiced Chinese calligraphy… or baked a pear pie… or used my watercolor set… or went hiking on the Appalachian trail.

So why not a "Slow Media diet"? This phrase captures the idea of a regimen that excludes many convenient things, but includes many better things that involve some effort and imagination. It could be like giving up Cosi and making your own sandwiches or having one at a friend's house, instead — to stretch the food metaphor perhaps a bit too far.

I imagine that for purposes of the experiment, I'll pretend that
it's 1989 (one of my formative years, naturally) and permit myself to
use whatever media were available in that communication environment of
two decades ago. This includes landlines, faxes, printed newspapers and
magazines, books, radio, VHS tapes, records and cassettes, television
(provided its still broadcast), etc. — along with anything unmediated. Still a lot of details to work out here regarding how to define and delimit digital media, a tricky task since they've encroached on every facet of our lives.

As for the timeframe: I initially thought I would do this for just a
month, maybe over the summer break when it would be easier to "clear my
plate" of work obligations that require computer use. Lately, I've been
talking to some people who urge me to be more ambitious and give up
digital media for a year (easy for them to say! Maybe they enjoy the prospect of living vicariously through me).

really, the year-long "lifestyle experiment" has become pretty standard
in our culture. A year in Provence. A year of living dangerously, and
also of living biblically (that guy A.J. Jacobs has single-handedly built a cottage
industry of doing odd things and keeping diaries). There's the woman that didn't buy
for a year, the family that didn't use toilet paper for a year, and the woman who cooked Julia Child every day for
a year (leading to a book, movie, and long Netflix queue for The French Chef). I wonder just how closely they hewed to their own rules.

Could I avoid using any cellphones, computers or other digital
media for a whole year? Could you?

Continue reading “My Slow Media diet: How will it work? For how long?”

You may be right, I may be crazy, but…

I've hatched this idea whereby I'm planning to totally abstain from digital media, for a substantial period of time. No Internet, no cellphone, no CDs or DVDs, no television, no e-mail, no iPods or Wii's, no texting, no Google. There are still a lot of details to be worked out: which forms of communication will be off-limits, what the acceptable substitutes will be, how long the experiment will last. I'm thinking at least a month, maybe a semester or even a year.

Most people laugh when I tell them about my plan. Responses to the proposal tend to fall into two camps: 1) it's an admirable plan but it cannot be done, or 2) it's a undesirable plan and it cannot be done anyway. "No way!" one person exclaimed. "Should I just giggle?" another asked. My friends and colleagues generally think that digital media are indispensable tools without which modern human beings cannot survive or, at least, without which life is not worth living. I like to point out that large swathes of the world somehow get by using little or no digital media, including my father right here in the U.S.A., a lifelong mechanical engineer who doesn't know how to go online.

Americans aren't pre-disposed for abstinence, that's for sure, what with the Protestant work ethic and all. How successful were the counter-cultural movements promoting "TV Turnoff Week" — now rechristened "Digital Detox Week" and devoted to "screen-time awareness"! — and "Buy Nothing Day"? (If you don't already know these campaigns, they've been around since the early 90s, taking place the third week of April and the Friday after Thanksgiving, respectively. You might consider the latter an appealing alternative to 6 a.m. mayhem at the local box store on Black Friday this year). Our culture values productivity, abundance, speed and busy-ness over the absences thereof — namely, slowness and idleness. Spiritual types might say that we're just racing towards death.

Every year, I assign my students a "Digital Media Abstinence" project, where they're supposed to avoid the Internet, cellphones, TV/DVD, etc. for a single day. Usually, only a couple of people in a class of around 20 report getting through one day without media, and even those scant claims of success can't be verified. Many of them admit that they didn't try that hard. They seem bewildered when I mention my own lifestyle experiment, incredulous as to why anyone would want to do such a thing.

Other friends have helpfully recommended that I resurrect my Walkman and rabbit ears. An old, dear friend of mine did show faith in my ability to carry out
the project, asserting that I am good at denying myself things.
(Hope she'll notice that I just called her "old"!) But really, it's not denial when you think of all the alternative ways of spending one's time that open up when one creates the space for them. If I get bored while abstaining from digital media, it might be due to a failure of imagination.

The digital juggernaut: Resistance isn’t futile!


Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, after his assimilation by the Borg.

Whenever I see people walking down the street wearing those little Bluetooth headsets, I think of the Borg.

Okay, really… first I think that they must be crazy people, because when I grew up, if you saw someone walking down the street alone talking, it meant that they weren't getting the right meds.

But then once I do notice the headset, I think Borg.

To summarize the concept of Borg quickly, I'll excerpt a passage here from the page for Borg on Wikipedia, as I trust Trekkers to vehemently enforce the accuracy of that entry — and if they don't, well, there's not a whole lot at stake here. It's science-fiction, folks. (Or is it?)

The Borg are a fictional pseudo-race of cybernetic organisms depicted in the Star Trek universe. The Borg have become a symbol in popular culture for any juggernaut against which "resistance is futile." The Borg manifest as cybernetically enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive mind,
linked to subspace domain. (…) They operate solely toward the
fulfilling of one purpose: to "add the biological and technological
distinctiveness of other species to their own" in pursuit of perfection. This is achieved through forced assimilation,
a process which transforms individuals and technology into Borg,
enhancing, and simultaneously controlling, individuals by implanting or
appending synthetic components.

In the Star Trek universe, assimilation by the Borg is generally
assumed to represent an enhancement of individual capabilities. But the price of
enhancement is control, the subjugation of all individual wills to a collective
mind, which runs counter to most of our cultural notions about what it
means to be human.

Continue reading “The digital juggernaut: Resistance isn’t futile!”