“The weirdest three hours I ever spent,” student says

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that students in my Mass Media & Culture class were ambivalent toward my critique of digital communication and my nostalgia for analog alternatives. After all, they're members of the "Millennial Generation" (which doesn't even consider e-mailing or texting to be "writing," according to this Pew survey) and I'm just a digital immigrant.

So color me surprised when many of them got sentimental in their reports on the Slow Media Experiment! In this assignment, students spent three hours engaged with analog media or other non-digital entertainments of their choice — such as watching VHS tapes, keeping written journals, playing musical instruments, listening to vinyl records and audio-cassettes, painting, sketching, making ceramics, etc.

As  it happens, many of these college students missed middle-school-era activities that had been pushed aside as their lives got busier (in part due to increasing digital communication). Here's a small sampling of their responses to the experiment:

  • I chose to write in my journal because it is something that
    I used to do every night when I was growing up and haven’t done since middle
    school. I’ve always felt too busy or tired to sit down and write out my
    thoughts after a full day at school or whatever it was that filled up my day.
    Eventually I forgot about doing it all together. This assignment gave me a
    reason to do it again after four years. When I was a kid, writing in my journal
    was a special, almost sacred part of my day. It was a chance to be alone with
    my thoughts. It felt so easy and relaxing. Writing in a diary is something
    truly unique, and there is no digital alternative that can fully capture the
    experience. There is something to be said for sitting down in a comfortable,
    quiet place and writing out slowly and deliberately your every thought and
    feeling.

  • First I practiced calligraphy, an art class that I am taking
    in school. It's non-Western calligraphy, so we
    have been practicing Arabic calligraphic work, which is very interesting. I
    used a pen and ink to practice Arabic letters such as the S, L, J and B. The
    advantage of doing these activities was that it caused me to be really engrossed
    in what I was doing and I wasn’t really concerned with my cellphone or who
    might be trying to reach me at the moment. Doing art was very therapeutic. I don’t
    believe that you can recreate art with digital media tools.

Continue reading ““The weirdest three hours I ever spent,” student says”

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).

But
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
anything
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.

My postcard experiment

Vintagepostcards1

Some of the vintage postcards that my friends might — or might not — have received recently.


To indulge my new fetish for slow media, I just sent a few dozen postcards to friends and family this weekend. For some reason, it felt like an experiment. I'm interested in seeing how, or whether, people respond to them. It's probably somewhat rare these days for any of them to find a postcard — especially one from me, in any case — in their mailboxes. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to send this small collection of humorous vintage postcards that I bought back in 1993 (above). It seemed like it was time to finally use them.

I must say, preparing those postcards to mail was kind of a pain. One post office was out of postcard stamps and there was a long line at the other one, which didn't have a stamp vending machine (just realized I could have ordered them online!). It took almost a week to get them out. I got writer's cramp. It was tedious repeating slight variations of the same message on all those cards. My handwriting is terrible when I write that much that quickly, so people will probably struggle to read the messages. The space constraint felt unfamiliar; one of the blessings/curses of postcards, of course, is that you can only write a few lines. That wasn't nearly enough room to accommodate everything I wanted to say to some friends, while short messages left conspicuously blank space on other cards.

I recently moved to a new city, so the premise for corresponding with everyone was conveying the new address. I could have done this by e-mail and avoided the space constraint. Also, ironically, I had to check Facebook profiles for several people to make sure they still lived where I thought they did. (They didn't! One family from North Carolina just moved to West Virginia, another friend from Louisiana seems to be in Florida now, etc. Guess there's little impetus now to inform people of new whereabouts since they can always find you online regardless of where you live.) Although several people send me Christmas and birthday cards, the rest probably won't use my snail mail for anything, anyway.

Basically, I'm never doing that again. Unless I get a lot of positive feedback from recipients that makes it seem worthwhile — feedback that would have been facilitated if I had sent e-mails and people could have replied at the click of a few buttons. Will people contact me to comment on the unusual postcard, or respond in kind somehow? Will the postcard get delivered to the right place, since USPS probably doesn't either forward them to new addresses or bounce them back to the sender? Will anyone even notice the cards in his or her neglected mailbox, mixed in with bills and catalogs and junk-mail? If the postcards do arrive, however, there's a chance that recipients will enjoy and display and share the postcard more than they would an e-mail message.

Is there a “Slow Media Movement,” or is it just me?

"South Park" creators Matt Stone & Trey Parker made this animation, featuring Zen philosopher Alan Watts, that criticizes the culture of busy-ness.


Communication is a zero-sum game, to me. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, all the time I spend with one medium is time I can't really commit to another. People like to think that they can multi-task, but a lot of limitations come into play. You can listen to NPR while you type your blog (as I'm doing now) but blogging can't be performed simultaneously with writing a postcard (my next task). Also, the quality of my attention to the radio is pretty low right now; Terry Gross' guest sounds vaguely like Arianna Huffington but I couldn't tell you what the topic is.

To appease my longing for analog media, I've started toying with the idea of doing a digital media fast. All the time I spend online now will be devoted instead to postcards, letters, and whatnot. This will require a lot of substitution: landline for cellphone, fax for e-mail, record player for i-Pod, etc. Essentially, I'm going to pretend that it's 1989. In trying to come up with a term for this category of media that I'm trying to reinvigorate, I came up with "analog" and "anachronistic" before settling on Slow Media, in the spirit of Slow Food and the attendant Slow, or Slow Living, Philosophy.

As it happens, a quick Google search for "slow media" shows that other people have spontaneously generated the same concept and made the same connection. Helen de Michiel, a filmmaker who produced "Turn Here Sweet Corn" in 2001, links community-supported agriculture to the "slow media practice" that she espouses. Matt Shepherd, who seems to be a comic-books kind of guy, asked last year whether Slow Media was "a movement or a menace" and concluded that it was neither. He considers hand-written letters,
books/comics ("especially local authors"–analogous to "food miles," perhaps?), conversation groups, theatre,
and live music to be slow whereas fast would mean "cell phones, movies, the Internet, recorded
music and Clear Channel-type radio." I have my own ideas about where this boundary should be, so 'll have to get back to this definition in a future post.

I've mentioned my digital media fast to people a few times, and most of them seem to think that I'll be depriving myself of the Internet and cellphones. But it feels more like liberation than deprivation. As Matt Shepherd noted in his blog, "Saying 'Hey, cell phones suck' is not nearly as interesting to somebody as presenting a positive alternative." He also points out the irony of fostering a Slow Media Movement online but hey, what else are we gonna do?