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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?

Digital Living and the Body

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This CNN article “Your smartphone is a pain in the neck” (literally) points out an important dimension of digital living – all of the physical health issues it contributes to or exacerbates. Back and neck pain, eye strain, excessive sitting, and so forth. Are these things considered occupational hazards? With this note done, and after a day of sitting at my computer, I’m going to hop outside!

Autoethnography — another diet failed.


(Image: The Italian Voice under the Creative Commons license).

The researcher tries to diet. A brief summary just after breaking the fast. I was certain this would not be a problem, and I’ve tried this before. So I shut down my phone on Sun 1/23 around 6pm and swore not to go online — take a full-on diet for 24 hrs.

But oh no. My awful, cheap ‘eco’ ‘smart’phone was the problem. At first I just routinely checked that non-functioning phone. Also, I don’t have a watch, or an alarm clock, and some addresses and other info were buried in text messages. And when I turned on my phone to check the time, and  saw a message…  I had already replied before thinking. I listened to some new agey music and more than once, hearing certain sounds, thought the phone is ringing. Admittedly, I also felt so anxious about all imaginary work emails. Truly stressful.

Now off to reply to those ‘important’ messages, 3 out of some 60 total that landed in my inbox actually require action. More soon.


A day + later: I’m actually happy the experiment went as it did. It wasn’t a leisurely break from communication, a kind of mini-vacation during which I’d do what I normally wouldn’t (I’ve taken a few of those, as I frequently spend time in yoga retreat centers). It begun after a lovely brunch I threw for some 20+ friends (so I thought there was no need to keep in touch with any of them for 24hrs 😉

However, most of the diet happened on the Monday of the 2nd week of classes at Fordham where I teach. I was in the work mode, composing emails in my head, wondering whether it would be too late to email students some class-related details after 6pm when I’d officially be back on track. Maybe I shouldn’t go to my kickboxing class so I could be right by the computer when I can log on again? And what might my colleagues think of me if I’m not responding to work emails on a weekday!

It seems clear to me that the computer is my work tool, and my phone is the personal lifeline. As I noted before, during the fast I got a few nice personal texts — that I couldn’t help but reading, when I turned on the phone to see what time it was. And, I couldn’t help but responding immediately, once even routinely (meaning: without even considering or remember that I was dieting; almost like sleepwalking to the fridge). This echoes the instant response culture that my students documented last semester: We expect instant replies to text messages, unless the circumstances are truly extraordinary (the respondent is exceptionally busy, in a very special place/situation, or mad). Hence, I felt compelled to answer without delay.

Also, midday Monday, working from home, I all of a sudden felt the urge to call my best friend in Finland. I don’t do that often (so she’s an exception to the phone as personal communication tool rule); we normally Skype. But it was as if I just needed to use my phone, and to reach out to that person who’s dear to me but not physically close –as if all of a sudden it was so important to do, right then. I don’t know where that came from, subconscious at work?

So what did I do with my day? I planned things in my head, ran errands, did laundry, walked the dog, read — and a friend came for lunch and a reiki treatment (she knew I’d be dieting). All in all, the day passed quickly.

The biggest takeaway for me was my antsiness about work, about the need to perform 24/7, to be available for colleagues and students. As said, I’ve easily survived diets when traveling, or when staying in a place that encourages a media fast. Silence doesn’t bother me, not even the absence of texts. But now that protestant work ethic intervened, brought about a sense of guilt and irritation, that I’d be disconnected when I maybe shouldn’t be.

The U.S. pilot of our study will take place late Feb and early March. Stay tuned for more blog posts and insights from our wonderful participants.

Digital Time (film)

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Here is a draft description of a film to coincide with the Digital Living project …

Digital Time is a feature-length ethnographic film about everyday life in the information economy, directed by Amelia Bryne.  It investigates how our participation in digital culture influences how we experience time: documenting the speed of digital life, our hopes for the future, and our technology addictions and misgivings.  The film spans digital (and non-digital) ‘nodes’ in North America, Scandinavia and India, three areas of the world that are plugged into the global information economy, and that, in their own ways, are both participating in and shaping digital culture.

Images, shot in each of the three regions, will reveal a lush, dense world of digital technology and bodies in daily life, including: mobile phones in pockets and on nightstands; technology stores busy with customers buying new gadgets; old technology gathering dust in closets: the broken computer that you can’t bear to throw out or don’t know what to do with; ads for mobile internet on the beach; people eating breakfast while checking their email; eyes steadily gazing at screens; hands clicking computer mice; families ‘alone together’ with their personal digital devices; clocks, alarm clocks and scheduling devices.

The film begins with the premise that we increasingly live in a digital culture. TV ads, government policy, and school lesson plans all reinforce the idea that computers, on-the-go communication, screen-glazed eyes, and video games are the future. And that, more and more of us will come to live like this. But, what is it really like to live digitally? Is this a better life?

Digital Time illustrates our collective sense that time is speeding up. Digital technologies help us to complete tasks that once took hours or days in seconds. Digital culture equals efficiency, productivity, fast-paced multi-tasking: we are and we feel we must be busy all the time. Time is digital. Time is fast. Things are moving rapidly. Vast changes are happening on and to the planet in single human lifetimes. We are in a time of exponential time. We have exponentially more information at our fingertips; exponential growth of economies and devices; and are participating in the exponential use of fossil fuels and other natural resources. We are moving faster, changing faster, maybe moving towards disaster faster.

Ultimately, the film asks: What is digital time? What is its impact on us, and the planet? And, what happens if we choose not to participate?

Laptop Woman

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Lydia Grey, a ceramic artist, lives in a small town in the middle of a beautiful wild forest. She makes work that is most often very earthy: women’s bodies, animals, organic shapes, thoughtful faces.  Occasionally she works with other themes. The yellow piece below, for example, – in which a woman is balancing a laptop on her belly:

At first I didn’t like that she was mixing technology and clay, technology and nature, technology and body. But, more than anything else this pot makes me reflect on the (integral) nature of technology in our lives. The soft gaze and full attention the woman brings to her laptop, looks familiar, and is unsettling.

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