Digital Living: Sweden

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I’ve been thinking over the last days of how to describe the differences between digital living in the US and Sweden, as an American spending quite a bit of time in the north. Are there differences?

The more I think, the more I feel that there are more similarities than differences, that some cultural differences aside (largely related to Sweden’s stronger public safety net and related expectations), daily life in Sweden is swept up in many of the same patterns as shape digital life in the U.S. today.

Daily Life Abroad

On a personal level, Internet access allows me to stay much more connected to the US when I’m in Sweden than otherwise. I can continue to work “there” (the US) even when I’m here (Sweden). My colleagues are largely the same, as is my day-to-day work. In New York, as in Sweden, I spend a large part of my working day at my laptop, sipping cups of tea, reading and writing.

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I can still access and participate in the US internet landscape even when I’m not physically in the US. This sounds mundane, but it’s actually pretty amazing when one stops to consider the implications. And, I indeed continue to participate much more in the US-online-world than I do in the Swedish one. With a VOIP phone I can even keep my NYC office number, easily calling the US or receiving calls. And, with a six-hour time difference working cross-continentally with the east coast US feels relatively reasonable (3pm in Sweden = 9am in NYC). Even when I’m in the US, many of my work relationships are mediated by technology, as collaborators and clients often live in other US cities, sometimes on the other side of the country.

To put things in perspective, I think about the story a friend told me about her time in China. As a young student at Yale in the 1970s she got the opportunity to study in Beijing just after the Cultural Revolution, at a time when the country was generally quite closed to foreigners. At Beijing University (often considered China’s equivalent Harvard) there was a small reading room with foreign newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post. The room was off-limits to Chinese students, but foreign students and a handful of scholars were allowed access. The newspapers were often at least a week old, given the transport time involved. But, my friend would read the news, now and then, to get a sense of what was happening in the world and at home in North America. After two years in Beijing, surrounded by Chinese language and culture with only slow and occasional access to “home”, returning to the West was a shock.

Shared Language, Shared Culture

My friend’s experience abroad in 1970s China is certainly very different from my experience of living in Sweden today (I also spent stretches of time in China in 2004/2005/2006, but that’s a different story!) Here, many instantaneous lines of connection remain open for me with the US. And, there are many similarities between New York and Stockholm life — or, perhaps, better said, many Swedes and Americans participate in a shared international culture of iPhones, well-roasted coffees, hip secondhand shops, the Millennium trilogy of Stig Larsson books, big theater showings of the Hobbit, American TV shows, and Swedish bands ranging from ABBA to First Aid Kit.

Part of this crossover is related to the fact that a large majority of Swedes speak and read English very well. Bookstores and libraries in Stockholm typically have a large selection of English language books, Swedish academics often publish in English, and some workplaces are entirely English-speaking. Despite the fact that English is not one of Sweden’s official minority languages, government websites and services are often offered in both Swedish and English. All of this is not for the benefit of native English speakers alone, but rather allows Sweden to connect with a large international community with English as a lingua franca.

In digital culture, the overlap is often even more clear. Many computer-related words have been taken directly from English into the Swedish language. Apple devices like iPhones are incredibly popular. And, episodes of American shows like Portlandia and True Blood are available on the Swedish public television website.

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Episode of Portlandia currently available on SVTplay.

The media connections continue: recently a Swedish relative began reading The Economist and The New Yorker on his tablet — as this digital option is much cheaper than an international paper subscription and makes it affordable. A woman I spoke with in a shop in Stockholm in early January had just finished gorging on a set of American science fiction novels she’d ordered on Amazon.com. Many of the books, she said, had labels from US libraries — presumably books the libraries had purged from their collections. And, a friend showed me beautiful antique quilts from the southern US that she’d won on Ebay and had shipped to Sweden.

(This digital exchange isn’t always so smooth — for instance, I can’t buy Swedish language media via my US-based iTunes account, and it’s hard, though by no means impossible, to access certain American media online from abroad.)

Non/Digital Summers

Nevertheless, there are some basic differences (and many more subtle ones — surely including those I haven’t yet discovered). Most markedly, Sweden’s social safety net with affordable day care, low-cost and high-quality healthcare, support for families with children, and long vacations has an impact on life in general, as well as on digital norms.

I’ve slowly learned, for instance, not to expect a reply if I email someone between mid-June and mid-August. A reply is possible — just not a given. During these summer months much (but not all) of Sweden is off on vacation: ideally and idyllically at a small family cabin by a lake or the ocean. Many offices shut down for at least a month, and it’s not uncommon to receive an email auto-reply informing you that the person in question won’t be back in the office for six weeks. That is, there is a social expectation, in the professional world at least, that even the digital shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with these holy summer months.

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Of course, there are exceptions. And, perhaps they are becoming increasingly common. With mobile broadband more people can take the internet to even previously remote locations because, as this short article explains, service is available in 99% of inhabited locations in Sweden (note the photo of the couple using a laptop in their camping tent). Further, many parents feel increasingly pressured to bring not just their own, but their children’s digital devices on vacation.

A real life example: last summer we visited a friend and her family at their beautiful small old summer house in the countryside. She was working on finishing a book on the history of black metal (music) and explained that she was often up half or all of the night after her little girls went to sleep working on it. She could send chapters to her collaborator, she explained, via her mobile phone — which could be connected to her computer for net access.

Digital Patterns

From my own window in the Swedish countryside I can see four tall white birch trees, and behind them a gray 3G mast, just as high. Sometimes I ask myself: would I be willing to give up using a mobile phone if it meant that I didn’t have live in the shadow of its infrastructure? What’s the price of 99% mobile coverage? (In achieving the ideal of ubiquitous access Swedish telecom companies faced unexpected delays, as many citizens fought the arrival of 3G towers on or near their land. In part because mobile telephony is classified as a potential environmental hazard, local cities and towns had to consider these objections, even if, in reality, most weren’t heeded.)

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While there are some differences in the build-out of telecom infrastructure in the US and Sweden, the overall patterns are remarkably similar. From the consumer side, there has been a decline in landlines in favor of mobile and VOIP telephones over the past decade in both places. Home broadband and internet use have increased markedly (see US stats here; and Swedish stats here), and now tablet use is on the rise. One interesting difference is the cost of a mobile phone service in the two countries: 4 cents per minute in Sweden versus 18 to 25 cents per minute in the US, according to a 2010 study,

Surprisingly, 1.3 million people in Sweden — about 1 in 7 people — don’t have the internet at home.  This is much less than in the US, where as of April 2012 34% of adults didn’t have a home net connection, or 1 in 3 people. Still, for those who don’t have the internet at home, or don’t get online regularly, the patterns in both countries are remarkably resonant. In both the U.S. and Sweden, those under 65, who have higher levels of education, and higher incomes are much more likely to be online at home. In addition, the reasons given for not being online are similar.

Perhaps the difference in the degree of disconnectivity between the two countries is reflective of the fact that due to a long history of supportive policies, Sweden is more socio-economically equal than U.S., leading to less drastic gaps in education and income.

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Video still from De Bortkopplade (“The Disconnected”)

On a cultural level, corresponding patterns are also evident. In Sweden, like the US, as increasing numbers of us become connected, more of us are experiencing internet burnout. Or, a growing sense that we can’t survive without our digital devices: not always a pleasant sensation. About 40% of Swedes, for instance, say they can’t “live a normal life” without the internet, and 7 out of 10 “can’t live” without their mobile phone.

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Percent of people in Sweden who “Feel that the spend too much time with the Internet, 2009-2011”, see study here. Bar graph labels, left to right: Never, Sometimes, Often, Very Often.

Still, in both countries, researchers and students at the biggest technical universities continue to study gaming and other digital futures with excitement and it’s considered to be more harmful for children to grow up without regular technology access than for them to spend too much time with devices. At the same time, over a recent lunch with a Swedish colleague, she related, with concern, how hard it can be to pull her children away from computer games and bring them outside: a situation perhaps not to unfamiliar to many parents in the US.

So, is digital living in Sweden different than in the United States? One could say that in some ways it is, but it’s perhaps more interesting to explore the surprisingly many parallels and interconnections.

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The Electricity Giant

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A weekend trip to a store in Sweden called El Giganten, translation = “The Electricity Giant”. Given that Swedes, and Americans, use way more than our fair share of the world’s energy I felt guilty shopping at a place that celebrates “giant” electricity use.

The store sells computers, iPads, electric razors, space-heaters, tech accessories, etc.. I bought a printer. The signs that say REA mean “sale!”

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Un-plugging

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In 1981 the celebrated poet/farmer Wendell Berry sharply commented:

TV and other media have learned to suggest with increasing subtlety and callousness – especially, and most wickedly, to children – that it is better to consume than to produce, to buy than to grow or to make, to “go out” than stay home. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 156)

And,

“We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 158)

Berry writes about his struggle to raise his own children in the context of mass media, junk food and a culture that doesn’t honor the land, or the local. He laments that in 1980 many children came home from school to then watch 4-5 hours of TV per day: not necessarily because parents wished this, but because they themselves were often too exhausted to be with their children. At the same time he describes that it’s not easy to “deny” children something that is part of daily life. And, that doing so seems to often have the result of such “deprived” children being drawn to the television set or soda-pop like moths to a light bulb.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first Wendell Berry book I read was a gift from my father.

Growing up in the 1980s my parents were, as it seemed at the time, very strict about TV. Until I was 12 or 13 I was allowed to watch one hour of TV per day. And, I was only allowed to watch PBS, which had mostly educational programs. At age 7 I remember sitting on a stool in front of the clock on the kitchen stove for one full hour, literally watching the minutes go by until Square 1 TV (a kid’s math show) was on.

As an older teenager, I was allowed to watch TV more freely, but it was never particularly easy. The television signal at our house was weak, and my parents would never consider getting a satellite dish (“regular” cable TV simply wasn’t available). The picture was almost always fuzzy. And, for a time we had no picture at all, as the TV set had broken and my mother was in no rush to replace it.  During that time I sat and listened — as the sound still worked — to popular sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld that would be talked about at school the next day.

Even though I suppose I felt like I suffered at the time, it didn’t take so long to feel that my parents — who very rarely watched television themselves — had done the right thing.

At age 16 or 17 I remember discussing a news show that I’d seen together with my mother about a family in Alaska that had no television at all. As part of the show the family was shown snippets of well-known news items from the past ten years such as OJ Simpson’s white Bronco car chase (I don’t remember what any of the “unforgettable” news moments were). One of the questions that the reporters asked the family, including their teenage children, was whether they felt like they missed something by not having a TV — wasn’t this absence, they implied, harmful for the children’s development and participation in nation and the world?  My mother wanted to know whether I felt like I’d been deprived of something by not watching so much TV as might be considered normal. Were there things I didn’t understand as a result? Did I feel left out?

I don’t remember exactly what I said then, but now I certainly feel don’t like I missed anything.

Today parents are of course encountering not only the question of how much TV their children should watch (if any), but also their use of computers, mobile phones, gaming devices, and so on. Is it right or wrong to set limits on a child’s media use? Will a child, for example, be disadvantaged at school if he or she hasn’t had the chance to learn to use a computer or a tablet at home? What if your child prefers to play computer games than to go outside?

The internet, like TV, gives us access to “the world”, but does it also suck life out of the home? Is it a place where parents retreat when they themselves are tired? And, how much more difficult is it (both practically speaking and psychologically speaking) to “unplug” a computer or a mobile phone than the television? Is that un-plugging in fact harder for most parents, than it would be for children? Would the choice not to have internet at home be more drastic than having no TV in the 1980s — e.g. to what extent would this deprive a child of participation in today’s world? Is it a valid choice to have a technology-free home?

(The authors of both Hamlet’s Blackberry and Winter of Our Disconnect consider questions along these lines — both books are written by parents.)

The average American watched 34 hours of television per week in 2010, or a little less than 5 hours per day. Reading this statistic I was feeling a bit proud that I watch quite a bit less TV than that. But, I do spend a great deal of time working in front the computer, perhaps 50 hours per week. And, how different is that? Perhaps I am “accomplishing” more things during my time with the computer, than with a TV. But, physically there’s not much difference, and studies show that extended perhaps of sitting aren’t great for our health. Outside of work I often spend time with other screens or devices, listening for example to a TED talk on my iPad, or watching a film. Yet, watching a film or reading a book are often no longer relaxing. By the end of the day my eyes are tired, even painful. Doing these things means using them more, and sitting still longer. And, I still often do them.

If the average American might spend roughly 84 hours or more per week or 12 hours/day  in front of either the TV or the computer (not counting mobile phone time), what are the implications of this? Is this what it means to live in a digital world?  Do we have a responsibility to integrate children into it, or to help them develop ways to stay grounded and unplugged?

Psychologist Aric Sigman argues on BBC that:

children up to the age of three should have little or no screen time. Then a maximum of an hour-and-a-half up to the age of seven, and a maximum of two hours up to the age of 18.

If at age 17 no more than two hours of screen time per day is recommended, then how much more can we healthily accommodate as adults?

Like Mother, Like Son?

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Last night on the train home I sat across from a mother and a seven or eight year old boy. As soon as the train started moving the mother took out her iPhone, and began touching the screen — focusing her attention here. She looked tired, maybe after a long Sunday in the city visiting a park or relatives or friends. The child sat next to her quietly for a while, looking around, then looking at what his mother was doing. Finally he said (in Swedish), “Mom, where’s my iPhone?”

The mother pulled a second iPhone out of her winter coat pocket (maybe her old phone?) and handed it to the boy, without really glancing up from her screen. The boy started playing what seemed to be a game on the phone, moving his body and making quiet noises. He kept looking up at his mother. But, every time he looked up she was intently focused on her screen. And, when she didn’t look at him he turned his attention back to his device.

 

Virtual Farming

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I’d like to relate a story, which made a strong impression on me:

Two or so years ago I was working on a market research project for a telecom company. The company wanted to know about consumer’s shifting media habits, particularly the relationship between different devices in terms of where they consumed media — e.g. when did someone watch a movie on TV vs. on a laptop, and what about media on the mobile phone?

Most people recruited to the study were heavy media consumers, with many devices. One, not atypical, was a young man — a college student in his third or forth year of school. I did not travel to meet him, but rather was watching and analyzing a video interview. The camera person moved around the student’s undecorated, yet rather full apartment taking close-ups of the large television propped up on a crate, a gaming console, the student’s laptop and desktop computer, an additional (broken) desktop computer stored in a corner, and a mobile phone.

The student talked about the TV shows he liked to watch, the games he liked to play, how he multi-tasked on his laptop, what the desktop was for. He talked animatedly, but seemed lonely. With all the time he spent with his technology when did he have time, I wondered, to do his school work, let alone see friends (in person)?

Near the close of the interview the interviewer asked the student whether there were any other tech devices he used. The student’s eye’s lit up. “Yeah”, he said, “I have a Game Boy” (a handheld gaming device I dearly wished to have at age 10, but which my parents never bought me — certainly worried that I would be playing games constantly if they did). The student disappeared to another room to get the Game Boy, which looked oddly low-tech.

He explained that he had an old Game Boy model even though he would like to own a newer one, because his favorite game only worked on old models. The game — which was the only thing he used the Game Boy for — was a farming game that he had been playing for many years. It was clear from his enthusiasm that this was something he really liked doing. The game was “very slow” the student said, and it mostly consisted of planting crops and waiting for them to grow. He found the slowness, simple actions and repetitiveness to be soothing and calming.

On my way home, eyes buzzed from hours of starting at the video screen looking at interviews with strangers about their screens, I couldn’t forget that simple moment. Why play a virtual farming game, when one could spend the same time going outside to garden ‘for real’? Has technology really made us happier when the thing we desire to do to relax and feel our best is a virtual approximation of what many of our our ancestors did daily for thousands of years (and what many people do everyday now)? What’s the difference for the body, let alone the psyche, when one farms virtually vs. physically?

In/Dependence: Swirling Communities

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The trending word for gatherings, groupings, meetings of the minds online seems to be — community. Job ads look for community managers. Blogs get written about how to build a community around your brand.

In the recent past, 20th century, thinkers have positioned societies as opposite to communities. The former are structural manifestations; about faceless organizations of humans into functioning arrangements. The latter have carried a nostalgic sense of emotional belonging that relates to one’s roots; whether geographically, culturally, or ideologically. Communities are cozy, nurturing, supportive — communal.

The past decades, observers have noted that the world has entered a postmodern state where nothing is permanent — ideologies, all kinds of power relations,  let alone structures of societies. They have argued that as we see this insecurity and impermanence in our highly formalized institutionalized and impersonal societies, we desperately seek refuge. We long for warmth and support. We want to connect as communities, but can we?

Enter the Internet. Fears of impermanence lift. Changes are embraced, seen as a way to bring down old borders — whether geographic, economic, social. Many celebrate the democratizing power shift of the online era and argue for a formation of a global public arena. The most optimistic voices hail the transformation of passive  ‘mass audiences’ and mass consumption, not only into a Global Village (where virtually everyone knows about one another, virtually), but into communities acting out of an inherent desire to participate, unleashed by social media platforms and tools. And online, we all can have a say, create independently, be whom, and with whom, we want to be. Right?

How free are online communities? How spontaneously are they formed, how unrestricted are they can operate? In the documentary We Are Legion, a member of the online group the Anonymous describes their way of organizing:

No one forces you to participate. You can always say you’re out. People act online like a flock of birds, just swirling around, until one flies to a certain direction — and then others follow.

Every idea/l of a  community — and democracy — includes some kind of co-dependency. As in: We are responsible for one another. We want all to have the same opportunities. We care for those in need, as helping one means helping the entire community.

So: the question of online communities is: Do they thrive on independence or dependency?  Is there a coop where all the pigeons meet; where they can come together, decide to act together, with a direction, for a common cause? Or, is the ambiguous swirling, and an instinct to follow at times, the new model for today’s communities?

A New National Pastime

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An article on CNN.com suggests that the new US pastime is not baseball, not TV, but … multitasking:

No one can take the public’s attention for granted today; first the advent of cable television fragmented viewing patterns, and then came the boundless Internet, followed by the creative forces that provide the content for all those little personal screens. Apple offers around 700,000 separate applications, as does Google. A lot of ways to pass the time, in a nation with a twitching concentration span.

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