I heart digital media. Really!

Somehow, people have gotten the idea that I hate digital media. I'm not exactly sure how this happened. Maybe it's because I write a blog about digital disenchantment. Maybe it's because I teach a class questioning the inflated role of communication technologies in our culture. Maybe it's because they heard my interview with Sally Herships on NPR about how I'm fostering a movement that encourages people to re-value offline media and get disconnected more.

For the record: I think the Internet is pretty neat. I remember the moment a few years ago when I looked at Google Earth for the first time, and felt dizzy. I just had fun launching a new website-slash-business-card. I did a video chat via Skype with my boyfriend the other night, and it was way cool. I'm even into online shopping, and e-banking, and streaming videos from Netflix and Hulu and YouTube, and all that jive.

Plus, I'm sort of addicted to this blog of mine. I have good discipline
and a busy life, so I spend most of my time doing things offline. But
if I were getting paid (conditional contrary to fact) to write about
Slow Media, I would totally love doing this every day.

Especially since one of my dearest friends just sold everything she owned and moved to Paris, I realize that we're lucky to have digital technology now for staying in contact. I lived in the south of France for a while in the 1980s and was really lonely, being completely out of touch with all my friends and family for long stretches. I also lived in Beijing for a while in the 1990s, and although there was an Internet, it was really slow (especially in China at that time) and phone calls back to the States cost $3… per minute. Living abroad must be easier now with e-mail, Skype, blogs, online photo sharing, iPhones, etc.

So don't think I'm hating on new communication technologies. They're super! I just think it's healthy to disconnect once in a while, to keep a good online-offline balance, and to be conscientious about the burdens that accompany these blessings and the analog losses entailed by digital gains.

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


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.

From my contrarian, technoskeptical, alienated perspective


Six years and counting! My trusty cellphone-slash-pet might be old and doesn't have a text plan — but it still holds a full charge and has never been lost, stolen or broken.

Letters, postcards, landlines… I've been feeling nostalgic for the media of my youth — or at least of my formative years, circa late 1980s or early 1990s. Doesn't feel that long ago, but the spectrum of communication technologies has expanded in the intervening couple of decades. When I want to get in touch with a friend, I can vacillate for hours now deciding whether I should call them or text them or g-chat them or e-mail them, etc. What's the proper medium for the information I want to convey, or for the type of interaction I want to have? 

If they're at work, then I don't want to call and disturb them; I should probably text. But the details are too complicated, so I could always e-mail or g-chat. But maybe they're not near a computer, or by the time they reply, I might be away from mine. I want to have a live two-way convo anyway, because there's information to exchange or decisions to make, so if they don't answer the phone, I'll just leave a voice-mail. But, they probably wouldn't hear the phone message anyway; they're likely to just call back without listening, right? Or they'll just reply to my call with a text and I'll have to call them again or text them back: "Um, call me, geez!" Maybe I'll forgo the message and just let them see my number on their recent call list. But maybe they're in the subway, and my incoming call won't register; then I'll think they're not responding when really they didn't know I phoned. Or maybe…

Yes, these are the thoughts that run through my head every time I consider contacting a friend. Sometimes I wind up just not getting in touch with the friend at all due to paralysis induced by too many media choices. This state of being results in part from my disenchantment with digital media. It also contributes to my disenchantment, I know 

But, dear friends, even if I do call and you do answer the phone, chances are good that one of us will lose our signal, or our connection will be bad so we can't understand each other and I'll get frustrated repeating "What was that? I didn't hear you," or
you'll be in the middle of something so you'll have to call me back, or one of us will be driving and doesn't want to get a ticket or cause an accident, or I'm at a store/doctor's office/restaurant and other people are glaring at me for rambling on the cellphone in public. It's easier just not to call. Though digital media are supposed to be making us more connected, somehow I feel the opposite. 

Also, it might help to know that this is my phone (above). Not conducive to speedy texting, folks.