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.


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 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.


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.)


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.


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.

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!”

IMG_0246 IMG_0247 IMG_0248 IMG_0249 IMG_0250 IMG_0251  IMG_0253 \ IMG_0255 IMG_0256



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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)


“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 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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About a year ago I stopped to admire a table full of finely refurbished old-fashioned typewriters at the outdoor flea market in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I chatted with the young man selling the typewriters. I commented that it was interesting and surprising to see an entire “store” full of analog devices.

“Who are your best clients?” I asked. He replied that he often sold the machines — at about $100 each — to young writers who wanted to leave the computer behind and to try out writing as one would have 40+ years ago.

I was surprised by the high price, and the apparent popularity of used typewriters, because only a few years ago they seemed to be regarded as completely obsolete.

I bought my typewriter, on which I’ve written many typo-filled letters, around 2004 at a Goodwill in Montreal. The machine, a charming mint green model, cost about $5 and was to my eyes a good hybrid been functionality and old-time charm. At the time that I bought it, it was only one of perhaps fifty typewriters lying forlornly on a shelf in the thrift shop’s cluttered backroom, and all were offered for rock-bottom prices.

My only trouble until now has been finding replacement ribbons for my typewriter, leading me to odd corners of cities to find typewriter supply stores which seem to have died out one after another. But, perhaps this trend will shift… (If you are in NYC check out Typewriters & Things at 13th and 8th Avenue.)

Neuromancer, by cyber-punk author William Gibson, was famously written on a typewriter.  This is perhaps not entirely surprising as it was published in 1984. But, still, one might have expected that this ground breaking novel, which evocatively imagined a cyber-future not terribly unlike our reality 30 years later, would have been written with the most futuristic tools of the day.

Gibson has indeed confirmed that “the novel was written on a 1927 model of an olive-green Hermes portable typewriter, which looked to him as “the kind of thing Hemingway would have used in the field”. In 2007, the writer commented:

I have a 2005 PowerBook G4, a gig of memory, wireless router. That’s it. I’m anything but an early adopter, generally. In fact, I’ve never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don’t watch them; I watch how people behave around them.  That’s becoming more difficult to do because everything is “around them”.

For some visuals, check out this post with photos of about 20 authors and their typewriters — Sylvia Plath is pictured below.

The connection between typewriters and authors of the past or of older generations isn’t too odd, but why this apparent nostalgia for typewriters among younger writers (including myself)? As one commentator posits, perhaps the  “typewriter will become the record player of the literary world: a dusty old contraption that becomes fashionable among a generation of people who have always had access to newer, sleeker versions of the same thing.”

Portlandia’s Dream of the 1890s highlights the pop-culture hipness of simpler, analog living in a more general way. The popular TV show’s music video parodies the fact that in Portland — as 120 years ago — people are: “pickling their own vegetables, brewing their own beer … knitting, sewing clothes for their children … are wearing glasses all the time like contact lenses had never been invented … kids grow up to be artisan bakers, everyone has homemade haircuts and men shave with straight razors … people raise their own chickens and cure their own meat…”.

The best commentary I’ve seen on this subject — of why it’s popular to do things in an old-fashioned way that is rather time consuming and inefficient compared to contemporary alternatives — was a long and winding Swedish article which drew connections between hipster culture’s longing for “things that take a long time” (like making sourdough bread) and the speedy digital world that we find ourselves in. The author pointed out that in many ways this hip lifestyle, of growing one’s own vegetables or composting or picking up crochet,  allows one to pursue the pleasures and benefits of delayed gratification — e.g. passing up an immediate reward for a bigger reward gained by waiting.

On a bigger level, we can consider that we live in a society where, for the most part, we aren’t encouraged to develop the art of waiting embedded in practices that connect us to the basics of life such as growing food, sewing clothing, or preserving things for the winter. Things ranging from computers to grocery stores to iPods to global brands like H&M present us with incredibly easy and fast access to information, music, food, pants & shoes for which we, for the most part, haven’t had to wait for or participate in creating.

Yet, one’s experience of eating a cabbage is different if it took you 15 minutes to drive to the grocery store, buy it, and head back to eat it for dinner versus if you grew it yourself. I speak from experience looking at the last cabbage left from our garden which is resting on the kitchen counter — the result of many months of care, slow growing, summer evening walks through the garden, and mini-battles with slugs and caterpillars.

It is absolutely a luxury to be able to zip down to the supermarket and buy tomatoes, oranges, eggs, chocolate, etc. in Sweden in November. But, is there not something lost in the process of creating or tending to something oneself — the waiting, the working, the time and memory infused?

Through this lens one can see the hip activities of concocting one’s own bitters, caring for bees, or chopping wood as intentional reactions to a digital, global culture which gives us everything at — almost literally — the push of a button. And yet, fails to deeply satisfy.

We desire, it seems, things that we can put our hands on; understand on a human scale; or fix or do ourselves. A LONGING for the real, the natural, the slow. A desire for things that, unlike our experience of the digital world, are:

  • physical — the clanking sound of typewriter keys or the clip of a film projector
  • limited — finiteness of a record vs. all the digital albums one could download in 1 hour
  • knowable — the fix-ability of an old appliance vs. the digital complexity of a new one

A real-life example of this exploration of doing things simply / by hand / at home is the charming blog Homemade Crackers which documents the adventures of a young Canadian family of five: “One day we wondered why we had never tried making crackers before. This blog is our journey to make more at home, find local ingredients and become supermarket-free.”  Here are is beautiful grape juice they’ve made:

Or, check out the related Beehive Craft Collective: “Bound together by a common thread of making things by hand, this collective was formed in 2011 by members of the arts community in Hamilton, Ontario. Focusing on handmade, DIY, and sustainability, we hope to engage and promote a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity.” A quilting project:

Of course, there is a difference between being able to make the choice to live more simply and having that be a fact of life. Similarly, as choosing to be offline or analog is different than having no other option. But, it is pretty interesting that quite a few people are making that choice to the extent that one can in a digital society.

Sustainable not Reachable

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Here in Sweden I’m staying in the countryside, near a medium-sized town. Most of the public space downtown consists of two indoor shopping centers, which adjoin one another with an H&M, electronics stores, a large grocery store, a modern library, a pub, a state-run liquor store, and a number of other shops that sell shoes, stationary, sporting goods, and so on.

By chance I was there very early one day earlier this week and wandered further afield into the older part of the town. There is one main street, which presumably was more bustling in the 1940s and 50s prior to the arrival of the malls, globalization, and cement-based architecture. Here, I stumbled on a lovely, old-fashioned Swedish bakery.

At 8:30am on a Tuesday morning bakers were busy making bread and pastries in the back-kitchen. Six older men with worn faces sat around a table drinking coffee and talking (and were still there joking with one another and enjoying themselves when I left an hour later). Two middle-aged women and a teenage girl — a mother, daughter, and aunt? — wandered in and ate pastries. A retired couple ate a slow and quiet breakfast of bakery sandwiches. And a woman sat by the window with her coffee reading the paper.

It struck me that something was unusual, but it wasn’t until later that I realized that it was. What felt so odd, and peaceful, I think, was the fact that here I was in a cafe, on a weekday morning, with no sign of work in sight. No laptops. No wi-fi. No early work meetings. No student madly rushing to finish a stack of articles. No one grabbing a to-go coffee on their way to an office. Just people taking their time.

I read a little stack of newspaper sections that someone had left behind, finding a few tidbits related to this project even in this reading collection edited by a stranger (leaving me with the culture section of Sweden’s equivalent of the New York Times and a few-days-old copy of something like a Swedish New York Post).

This cartoon — the one in color — caught my eye:

The text reads:

1. “You’ve gotten a letter.” // “Oh, really.”
2. (nothing)
3. “What do I do with it?”

And, also this article:

The headline reads “Hotel Queen wants to be sustainable — not reachable”** and the text describes a Swedish hotel-owner who lives in India. The article goes on to note that she doesn’t have a cell phone, considering them “a huge experiment with human health”. And, of course, wifi is available for guests, but only upon special request.

So, per the hotel queen’s headline, is there a conflict between being sustainable (environmentally and otherwise) and constantly reachable?

Outside it has become lovely, gray fall weather…

**The most direct translation of the title of the “hotel queen” article would be “”Hotel Queen wants to be sustainable — not portable”.  “Portable” presumably refers to having a portable (mobile) phone?? … I think “reachable” is a more poetic way to translate the meaning of the title into English, e.g. “sustainable — not reachable”, or maybe it’s just my own creation!

Forward Motion

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***In general this post deals with issues that are bigger than the ones we may want to reasonably tackle in the book, especially those on the environmental side. But, hopefully this is a helpful exercise in terms of getting to some of the deeper trends and dilemmas that surround the technology debate and our feelings about its use in our daily lives.***

Here in Sweden I’ve been taking Swedish-as-a-second-language classes. The class I just finished focused on reading non-fiction texts, such as newspaper articles, and debating them.

One article we read discussed the phenomenon of anxiety people feel if they happen to forget their mobile phone at home, lose it, or are caught without service or a dead battery. The article poetically described Swedes on summer vacation hurrying out of forest glades or up to higher spots to find mobile phone service.

The larger point was, similar to many articles written in English, that many of us have incorporated mobile devices into our lives to such an extent that we have become reliant on them not only practically, but also in terms of feeling productive, safe and whole.

The article resulted in an interesting discussion between myself and two other women in the class, Adanna and Jamila. Although I usually have a pretty critical lens on technology, I found myself playing a rather supportive role for it:

Jamila: So, what do you think of the article?

Adanna: It’s kind of crazy with technology. We’re in a culture of people always wanting more and more. We can’t always keep on having more. People go out and buy new stuff all the time, the new iPhone, or the best computer. Do you really need to buy an expensive computer? I don’t think so! Something that is cheaper will do basically the same job.

Amelia: Actually, yes! I do need a relatively expensive computer. When I’m working on editing a film I need a powerful computer and certain software, otherwise I simply can’t do my job.

Adanna: Well, okay. But, what did people use to edit films before there were computers? Couldn’t you just do it that way?

Amelia: Hmm. Before there were computers people used really big editing machines and physical film. These machines were so big they could take up most of a room.  I don’t know where I would get one, and it would probably be quite expensive. I never learned to edit that way so it would take me a while to learn. But, I couldn’t use one of those because people don’t shoot on film anymore. And, I even if I did I would still have to digitize whatever I made on the analog machine and put it into a computer powerful enough to output a high quality video file (so I’d still need an expensive computer).

Adanna: Okay…

Amelia: But, the main problem with all this would be that I would be so much slower than everyone else that no one would want to hire me! I wouldn’t be able to keep up. So, even if I’d like to edit in the old way, in terms of practicality I really can’t, or I won’t be able to make a living.

Jamila: Yes, that’s totally true. And, what’s so bad about technology? Isn’t technology exciting?! I was watching a TV show on my smart phone in the bathtub the other day. It was so amazing that I was able to do that! I do have a fancy phone, but I think the cost is justified. I mean, I use it all the time, and it’s a really useful tool. So, why not have something that actually works well and makes my life easier?

Adanna: It doesn’t matter if technology is exciting. I mean, even if you if like it, do you really need that? I don’t buy something just because my neighbors do. I don’t need a fancy smart phone. We all play a part in hurting the environment and all of our consumption adds to that: this culture of “more”. We have to face reality that things can’t go on like this. We can’t always have “more” and “better”.

What struck me from this conversation was the realization that we perhaps have less of a choice than we like to think in terms of how we integrate digital technologies into our lives.

Although I see Adanna’s point of view, I also think Jamila’s point was well taken.  If today one is more or less required to have a certain type of technology to participate socially and economically, why not have something that makes that relatively easy for you?

I wrestled with this dilemma earlier this summer. I walked around sunny Stockholm for a number of hours trying to decide whether or not I should buy my first smart phone. Should I move up a step in the technology ladder when the one I’m on seems to be working just fine? There was a very good sale on the old iPhone model, but it felt wrong to buy one, in the sense that my old and very simple phone was just fine and I didn’t want to invite extra connection-time into my life. I already spend quite a lot of my day glued to my computer and my email account, and I didn’t want to start doing that outside of the office too.

In the end I got the smart phone. Practically it had become difficult without one in terms of being able to keep up on meeting changes or other work things, since there’s an assumption that one has one and everyone else behaves as such, perhaps even more so in Sweden and than in the US. Plus … I liked the phone. It actually is much easier to communicate with the smart phone than my old phone, and thus far I haven’t become particularly more compulsive about using it, though it does feel rather sad to leave that powerful tool lying in my purse 90% of the time.

This dilemma – of being both invited and forced to keep up with change – isn’t specific to information and communications technologies, but is part of the bigger history of technology advances.

In her book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (Oxford University Press, 1992) researcher Helena Norberg-Hodge describes the vast (and devastating) cultural change that barreled over the Ladakh people in northern India when the government built roads to the region and motor vehicles arrived. This was done in the name of development, and surely brought positive changes as well. But, Norberg-Hodge, who spent time with Ladakh communities before this shift, describes how the centuries long delicate balance with the landscape and the people’s sense of self was quickly and powerfully disrupted. Even when farmers wanted to continue farming and living in the traditional ways, which took into account the limits of the environment, they often felt they could not.  How could what a farmer working by hand would produce possibly compare to what one could produce with the help of a truck? How could a farmer justify denying their family the food and money brought in by the use of the new machinery when others around them were benefiting? So, in this case the technologies were cars and roads, not mobile phones, but the pattern of change — and the requirement to keep up with it — are resonant.

This, I think, is where the dilemma lies.

Our dominant cultural story over the last few hundred years has insisted that technological change is unequivocally good. That more, bigger, faster = better. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, though there are those like the writer Bill McKibben that wonder whether all of these bigger and faster changes have really made us happier – or perhaps only happier up to a certain point. But, the practical problem is that even if we’d like to we can’t keep endlessly heading in this direction because we live on a planet that is finite and simply cannot support continually increasing resource use, which is one thing the “bigger and faster, more technology” trend drives.

It certainly may be true in some cases that technology advances, digital or otherwise, mean that we use fewer resources (e.g. more efficient — faster but not bigger). For instance a modern washing machine may draw less energy and water than its predecessors. Though, perhaps this simply means that most of us own and wash more clothes, more often than we would have ever done if we would need to wash them by hand. I say this with some personal experience as, after spending two years washing clothes the old-fashioned way in a metal washbasin, I’ve recently bought a washing machine.

The larger point is that, generally, technological advances have meant that we humans have the ability to use more natural resources more quickly (see my earlier post on digital time and instant coffee).

For instance, I learned through a conversation with a fisherman that one contemporary fishing boat can catch a significantly larger amount of fish in a much shorter amount of time than the commercial fishing boats widely used even as recently as the 1970s or 1980s could. In part, this is due to information technologies, such as a sort of radar which allows fishermen to see schools of fish swimming beneath the water. If this technological advance meant that the new fishing boats only worked a fraction of the time that the old ones did, and the workers got the rest of the time off, then the amount of fish being caught would perhaps have not changed that much. But, since new fishing boats are presumably out for just as long as the old ones, they catch many more fish (which is theoretically good), but they also deplete the overall stock of fish in the ocean much more quickly (which is bad, and realistically, quite a bit more complex than this). That is, this technology development can be seen as both helpful, and harmful.

As design thinker John Thackara pointedly writes in his book In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World (MIT Press, 2005):

We’ve built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means, but hazy about ends. It’s no longer clear to which question all this stuff – tech – is an answer, or what value it adds to our lives. Too many people I meet assume that being innovative means ‘adding technology to it.’ Technology has become a powerful, self-replicating system that is accustomed to respect and receives the lion’s share of research funding. In NASDAQ, tech even has its own stock exchange.” (p. 2)

He adds:

That torrent of trucks [on a highway in France] was a reminder that thanks to all the design we do, man-made flows of matter and energy all around us are growing in volume. We buy more hardware than ever. We print more paper. We package more goods. We move more stuff, and ourselves, around at ever-increasing rates. In my lifetime, global population has doubled, energy production has more than tripled, economic output has risen by a factor of five, and computer processing speeds and storage have both increased over a million fold. It took from the beginning of human history to 1900 to grow a world economy that produced six billion dollars in output: today, the world economy grows by that amount every two years. This acceleration is like a cultural centrifuge. The faster the economy grows, the heavier we feel.” (p. 9-10)

So, what we have is a larger historical trend of using technology to do more, more quickly. This gives us new opportunities, but makes bigger and bigger impacts on the environment (which supports us, and all this technology) in shorter amounts of time. And, as those around us adopt these technologies it seems we have little choice than to follow suit in this forward motion.

The general cultural malaise around communications technologies – the feeling of being over-burdened by their use and at the same time afraid of being disconnected – doesn’t usually explicitly deal with these bigger trends of time, speed and acceleration, and certainly not the environment. But, I do wonder if there is some underlying connection?

Those of us living in this bigger & faster technology world often dream, perhaps a bit too idyllically, of its opposites: slowness, nature, and simplicity. Technology itself allows us to access that dream without being able (or necessarily actually desiring) to be there ourselves, as in these stunningly luscious photos of isolated cabins, or “cabin porn”.

Yet, ultimately, in this situation, what can and should we do? Should we embrace “bigger and faster”? Fight it? Would it even be possible to individually or collectively step out of Thackara’s “cultural centrifuge” and the seemingly ever increasing speed towards the future? If so, what would the consequences be? And, what are the consequences if we don’t?

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