Slow Media Movement coalescing into brick-and-mortar

Centerforslowmedia

I haven’t been posting much since I went back online nine months ago, because I’m still trying to keep a lid on my Internet use. But sometimes there's big news in the Slow Media world that’s worth sharing, so I’ll make occasional exceptions.

Like this one: It was exciting to see a center devoted to Slow Media spring up… even though it’s 1,031 miles from New York City, so I probably won’t get there any time soon. It sounds like the kind of thing that you’d see in Bushwick or other arts-oriented neighborhoods: a big old industrial space where people work together to build an alternative culture.

In this case, it’s a combination used bookstore-artisanal baker-piano repair/tuning service-and-book designer/letterpress printer/custom picture framer united under the auspices of a “Driftless Center for Slow Media” at the evocatively named Forgotten Works Warehouse in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

The center aims to encourage and celebrate "intentional, thoughtfully crafted and homespun media," according to its website. Looks like a beautiful old building where they host zine exhibits, Bloomsday readings, old-time music, events honoring Lorem Ipsum, and the occasional record party or vaudeville show. I’ll check it out, the next time I'm passing through Viroqua on my way from Romance to Viola.

Have you ever had a “Melonballer Moment”?

Sally Herships of NPR’s Marketplace coined a great phrase in this broadcast, which aired in February: Melonballer Moments, referring to the time you unintentionally waste doing online research to make trivial decisions. Being able to access scads of information about quotidian purchases is great, in theory… but when there’s so little at stake, how much time do you really want to spend reading user reviews about melonballers or whatnot? 

The story marked my going back online this January, after avoiding the Internet since last July. I had challenged myself to unplug from the Web for six months and give up my cellphone for a year. (I just started using one again last month, and even got a new one—though it’s a cheap, dumb clamshell.  I sometimes consider getting a smarter phone but still resist, for now!)

Somewhat inaccurately, the subtitle describes my offline project as a ‘chore,’ when for the most part I loved it. There were some frustrations, sure, but I was thrilled by the challenge of finding workarounds for device dependency. And I found myself in some bizarre, humorous situations:

  • throwing rocks at a friends’ third-floor window when her doorbell didn’t work, since I couldn’t call to let her know I was there. In retrospect, I would have set off my car alarm to get her attention;
  • hunting for payphones in New York City, which is easier than you probably think—though you need to get in the habit of memorizing or writing down in advance any phone numbers that you might need later;
  • wandering up and down a city block at midnight, unable to find a New Year’s Eve party because my fiancé didn’t know the address and assumed he would be able to look it up on his cellphone, which he had forgotten at home;
  • waiting patiently for a clerk to print out a “Wines of the Month” list from her shop’s website when she could have shown them to me… on a “Wines of the Month” shelf only 20 feet away from us. Turned out, her computer printout listed the wrong wines, too.

With only three minutes to tell the story, Herships doesn’t get into the background of why I went offline and what Slow Media means in the context of a new subculture of people who practice similar rituals like “Digital Detox” and “Unplugging” and “Internet Sabbaths.”

My search for a wedding dress, especially, resonated with her—perhaps because she also had recently begun shopping for one? I hazard to guess that she loves kittens, too.

Back online, somewhat ambivalently

Roll1022ed

People sent me a lot of postcards during the digital-detox experiment, but this one is probably my favorite since it combines postcard, newspaper and typewriting all in one.

 

After six months of immersing myself in Slow Media, I’m back online now — though still not using a cellphone. Interwebbing was fun for the first few days, but surprisingly the excitement faded fast.

Since starting the experiment in July, I have used payphones and yellow pages and typewriters… penned piles of letters and postcards… watched all my VHS tapes and listened to all my audiocassettes (along with some vinyl, until my record-player broke)… devoured a huge stack of newspapers and books… deciphered many a printed map…. and taken photographs with disposable cameras, 35mm film and Polaroids.

It was really fun. And honestly, life without digital media wasn’t that hard, folks. You should try it. Maybe just for a day, or a weekend?

Next up: I might perform a week of silent meditation to challenge the assumption that we need to speak, or maybe I’ll stop washing my hair for a few months to prove that we don’t need shampoo.

Going Offline: How to Become the Proverbial “Fish out of Water”

With three days to go before taking the red pill, it's probably a good time to sketch the contours of the Slow Media experiment that I'll be conducting until 2011. I've had these guidelines floating in my head for a while but haven't put them in writing until now.

My main priority is to escape the gift/curse of constant communication and infinite information, in order to 1) free up time to spend on other things, such as analog or material forms of media, and 2) enable some contemplation about the role of digital media in my life. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, no one knows who discovered water, but it probably wasn't a fish.

The overarching scenario is that I'll adopt the media technologies of 1990, just before the Internet and cellphones began their ascent — which holds some rhetorical and romantic appeal (for me, at least) in being a tidy 20 years ago, at the dawn of my adulthood. Forgive me any accidental anachronisms but hey, I'm not a historian… yet. I'll be living largely in the less-connected spirit of that time.

This means: Any print is kosher — newspapers, magazines, books but no Kindles, iPads, e-books. I'll listen to vinyl records, audio-cassettes and CDs but not iPods and their kin. Watch cable TV and VHS but not DVR or DVDs. Use a typewriter or an offline computer for word-processing, statistical analysis and desktop publishing, but nothing networked or downloaded or "in the cloud." Make calls on a land-line phone but not a mobile one. Listen to terrestrial radio but not satellite or online broadcasts.

A few new habits that I envision picking up:

  • Going to libraries to borrow videotapes, instead of Netflix.
  • Sending letters, postcards or faxes and making phone calls, instead of writing e-mails.
  • Publishing a zine, instead of a blog. 
  • Going to more brick-and-mortar stores, instead of shopping online at Amazon, Craigslist, eBay or wherever.
  • Paying monthly bills with checks, instead of online bill-payer.
  • Calling my bank's teller-phone, instead of accessing my accounts on the Web. 
  • Using printed references like dictionaries, phone books and thesauri, instead of online resources.
  • Buying plane tickets through a travel agent, instead of Kayak.com or airline sites.
  • Checking the forecast in the newspaper or on the Weather Channel, instead of at Wunderground.com.
  • Visiting libraries to do research, instead of trawling online catalogs and electronic databases from home.
  • Looking up directions in a map or atlas, instead of Google maps or Mapquest.

When it comes to media technologies that other people use, I'm neutral. I appreciate that many friends, family and colleagues are eager and/or willing to cooperate with this Slow Media experiment of mine. But I won't direct them to do (or not do) anything for me that they wouldn't have normally done on their own. If someone uses a cellphone, I will talk to them on it. If a travel agent goes online to book my flight, so be it. If people providing me products or services require the Internet to do their jobs, que sera sera. Whatever they do behind the scenes essentially doesn't change my experience.

The few technological devices I'll still be using are probably better than whatever was
available back then, but I lack the time, money and inclination for
scouring garage sales and junk shops to build a rec room replete with
Betamax and Commodore Amiga — though I probably wouldn't resist a
princess phone or Atari 2600 if I stumbled upon one.

More Student Reactions to Slow Media

A few months ago, the students in my Media & Culture class spent some time engaging with Slow Media and then reflecting on their experiences. Why? Because I made them!

This assignment was motivated by the fact that they had found it difficult to stick with the Digital Detox for one whole day. Detox focuses on what you can't do, creating a void in which students got bored and time passed slowly. Instead of presenting the experiment as a negative — "you can't go online or use your cellphone" — I reconceived it as a positive: You have an opportunity now to devote a few hours to entertaining yourself with the analog "devices" of your choice.

An earlier post described the surprising reactions of students who played musical instruments, wrote in journals, watched videotapes and practiced calligraphy for their Slow Media Experiment. The surprising part, for me, was how nostalgic these 19-to-23-year-olds felt for activities that they enjoyed and made time for just a few years ago — activities that have been pushed aside, in part, by the increasing demands of cellphones and computers.

Here are more extracts from their essays, where one student calls her experiment "the weirdest three hours I have ever had" and another says she feels freer when untethered from a computer:

  • The first part of my experiment was doing pottery for my
    Introduction to the Potters’ Wheel class. I was either on the wheel making, or
    trying to make, new pieces, trimming the feet for pieces that were already
    finished, or glazing them. The first couple of weeks had me worrying about how
    I would do in this class; I never seemed to make anything good and it got me
    really frustrated. I turned out to be one of my favorite classes I’ve taken
    during my entire time in college. I think that it being not the typical class
    with desks or computers makes it better and gives you more freedom.
  • I chose to listen to vinyl records because my parents collect
    them and own a record player, but I’ve never actually listened to any of
    them.
    I felt this desire to dust them off and play the Beatles the
    old-fashioned way.
    When I listened to [them] for the first time, I couldn’t help but smile.
    It
    really is the simple things in life that make us the happiest (…) It was
    a
    great chance for my sister and I to hang out and just be teenagers all
    over
    again. We felt like a couple of rock’n’roll kids from the sixties. I
    felt as
    though I really bonded with my sister through it.

Continue reading “More Student Reactions to Slow Media”