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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Five Star Existence (film)

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Here is a recent documentary by a Finnish filmmaker which seems quite relevant to the digital living project!

Five Star Existence Sonja Lindén (2011, 84 min)

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With the world at our fingertips, does technology make us freer? Amidst all the hurry and worry of the modern information society, are we happier? These are the core questions of Finnish filmmaker Sonja Lindén’s contemplative look at our wired existence.

Our communication habits have changed drastically in the past 20 years. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates daily, expectations intensify in the workplace, where hectic multi-tasking and 24/7 availability are the norm. Lindén also notes how our relationship to movement has changed; it is now possible to live a life entirely sitting down.

But while the sedentary nature of playing video games results in spine problems for some young people, a computer mouse stuck to the forehead of a disabled woman has given her a new independent life. How does machinery affect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being? How can we rediscover a balance between our natural rhythm and the rapidly escalating demands of modern society?

Beautifully shot and poetically paced, Five Star Existence was selected for International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s Competition for Feature-Length Documentary. Lindén’s sensitive, nonjudgmental treatment of these questions creates a heavily thought-provoking cinematic essay on the intertwining of machine and human being.

See the trailer, here.

snow storm

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A snow storm here in Sweden snapped the frayed, old telephone-wiring running to our house on Wednesday, which also carried our internet service. In the two days that the internet was off I worked on projects in very concentrated ways: re-writing a book chapter, and reading for hours.

I couldn’t stop being aware of the absence of the internet. I kept forgetting that it wasn’t there, thinking “oh, I’ll do this / check this / read this …” and then remembering a moment later that I couldn’t.

How long would it take for its absence to feel normal?

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During the snowstorm I reflected:

I realize how much of a distraction it usually is to have the internet on my computer – I spend time checking my email, looking at Facebook, and the news – but also checking my various blogs and doing other random things online. But as soon as it [the internet] returns I don’t think I’ll be able to resist turning the connection back on. I find it a relief as well that we don’t have access to movies or TV, which we usually might watch online. For about eight years I did not watch TV. Now, with the internet it is so easy, but I don’t like how it makes me feel. Not having it [the internet] gives me the feeling of having more space and peace. Yet, when it’s there, and I’m feeling tired and lonely, the temptation is often too great….

This passage could perhaps have been written by many of us living now. What strikes me is what it’s not about. It’s not about the practical issues of being only semi-connected. I could still get online with my cell phone to check and send emails, but I had to reschedule a phone meeting, I couldn’t get the work done I’d planned to do, and wasn’t sure how soon I’d be able to. These practicalities certainly did give me some anxiety, but what I wrote reflects something else: a sort of underlying desire for more peace/concentration/quiet, constantly defeated with compulsive connecting.

It seems to me that this peace–compulsion dichotomy is something in and of itself. It is as though the experience of working and living with digital media is enveloped by these bigger behaviors (compulsions) and desires (peace). Objectively, we could participate in the digital world — just using these tools to get our work done without experiencing this tension. But, is that actually possible?

Re-reading the excerpts of interviews with this project’s NYC participants I was struck by H’s comment about being digitally connected:

So, you’re always on, but not present, so your mind is in another space. That’s something I want to get better at, being present.

She’s talking about this peace/compulsion conflict too, I think.

I feel this relates to what ethnographer and psychologist Sherry Turkle means when she talks about how technology itself is not bad for people, but we should be wary of the “habits of mind” it allows us to practice. In this very interesting TED talk she notes:

We’re letting technology take us places we don’t want to go” … “those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t just change what we do, but who we are” … “we’re getting used to a new way of being alone together [e.g. three friends sitting together in the same room texting other people] … people want to be with each other, but also elsewhere” …

And also:

We can end up hiding from each other [by doing stuff on one’s Blackberry] even when we are together” … “human relationships are rich, and they’re messy, and demanding — and we clean them up with technology and when we do we can sacrifice conversation for mere connection” … “that feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ is very important in our relationships with technology … it makes us want to spend time with machines” … “we’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy”…

Near the end of the talk Turkle emphasizes the importance of learning how to be alone with ourselves — of feeling comfortable when others aren’t around and not immediately reaching for our devices for connection and distraction.

Or, could we look at this as a more complicated dilemma?

We desire to be connected with other people, so we spend a lot of time connecting with them digitally. These digital relationships which sustain, but do not necessarily nourish us allow us to “survive” mentally and emotionally with fewer physical, real-time relationships. And, so we in fact have fewer physical, real-time relationships. This can even be true if you work, for example, all day in a busy office. Most of your time, and most of your colleague’s time is likely spent not with one another, but alone together — each typing away and looking at the screen. The same can be true at home with one’s family, with everyone plugged into their own device, or attention fixed together at the TV screen — together but alone.

And, so if we “unplug”, what’s there…?

Space. Quiet. Ourselves?

We express a desire for this “peace”, but I also wonder, is the quietness that we do experience by disconnecting a lot more quiet than it would have been before all the devices we now have? In other words, by disconnecting are we dropping into the world where we — not too long ago — used to live all the time? And, when we drop in, do we see that this world become weak and thin compared to before? (in that, in it’s current state of few relationships or even daily habits, it alone could no longer sustain us…)

We do of course still have relationships, and do of course still live in the physical world. But, maybe differently and even not as fully as before? Did reading a book or listening to a story be told take us as “far away” as digital devices do?

I was talking a few weeks ago (by Skype) with a friend in New York, and I think that what he said referred to this. He said that he had a strong desire to not be so busy, not be so online, to clarify things and focus. At the same time, he said, the thought of stepping into that SPACE was also terrifying.

But still, so many of us seem to think that it’s important not to lose it whatever it is that is there.

 

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!

Being Quiet, Being Still

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I recently returned from a short trip to southern France, for a wedding. From Sweden I flew through Munich and then onto Marseille. The Munich airport was buzzing with busy folks in business suits, smokers cramped into little glass smoking rooms, and trash cans filled with piles of disposable paper cups for coffee and tea offered for free by Lufthansa at the gate. In contrast our tiny airplane to Marseille was filled with a healthy, tanned group of Norwegian women, older couples with straw hats, and no laptops in sight. From this I surmised that my fellow travelers to southern France were not likely heading there for work.

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As I drove up into the hill towns of the Luberon valley, things seemed increasingly relaxed. In the tiny stone villages of Gordes and Murs there was nearly no one on the streets. In the valley town of Cucuron all shops suddenly shut their doors for a three hour mid-day siesta, and countryside drives provided miles of olive of fruit trees, vineyards and newly cropped wheat fields to delight in. While I wasn’t there long enough to find the rhythm of the place (and perhaps this is a romantic view), it did feel that the most activity came from the frenetic biking, walking, eating, doing of the tourists, while the locals disappeared from sight or, like one old woman, sat quietly near a street corner for hours observing the comings and goings.

As might be expected in such a seemingly remote and beautiful place, I had trouble with communications technology: the internet in the hotel wasn’t working (leading to frittering away 45 minutes of trying to get it to work before giving up). Mobile phone messages and calls seemed to sometimes go through, and sometimes not, for unexplained reasons. The wi-fi network at a friend’s home only seemed to work when one stood outdoors in the courtyard. This was exactly the sort of spot where people go to ‘disconnect’ from phones ringing and emails popping in.

Experiencing these things – different rhythms, unwilling disconnection – I had this project at the back of my mind. But, there was one thing that really made me pause.

I had heard about a monastery up in the mountains, founded in the year 1148. A wedding guest pointed out the location on the map for me, and recommended that I go. Each night at 6pm the monks chant and hold vespers, an evening prayer service with outsiders are welcome to attend.

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I was very busy during the day before my visit: driving from town to town, sucking in various sites, sipping cafe au laits, snapping photos, and rambling around churches and narrow walking streets. When it was time to leave for the monastery a series of small events delayed me: I wanted to finish my coffee, and then the waiter took quite a long time to come with the change. Then, I dropped into a little grocery store to buy some fruit. I ended up behind two women who wanted to use a coupon, which for some reason the scanner wouldn’t read. The coupon took quite a while to resolve, and no one else seemed to be in a rush.

As I finally drove out of town and into the farm fields I got stuck behind a grape processing machine (driving presumably from one vineyard to the next). All the local drivers were passing the machine which was plugging along at its slow, slow pace, but the road was so narrow that I didn’t dare. After the machine finally turned off to its destination, the road began to wind its way up into the mountains, through dry forests and out to the edge of steep cliffs. It was suddenly desolate, and breathtaking.

Finally, way up high, in a protected spot, I came to the monastery.

At the entrance there was a sign indicating that this was a community of prayer and silence. It felt silent. The big open space that served as a parking lot was almost entirely empty. At the edge of the lot there was a single pay phone. It looked in good working order and was carefully situated so that it nearly blended into the bushes. A first I was very surprised to see it, as payphones seem to have all but disappeared from cities. Then it occurred to me, perhaps this was the only form of telecommunication the monks had with the outside world…? Even the pay phone was, perhaps, a radical intervention given the centuries of remoteness. In the days before roads it would have taken a long while to hike up to, or down from, this place.

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The path from the parking lot opened out to a sizable expanse of dry fields. It looked like the crops had mostly already been harvested, though there were what looked like sprigs of lavender left in some rows. A tractor stood at the side, underlining that a lot is grown in these gardens. The majestic monastery buildings spread out in the small valley. Very old, dusty stones. Large structures.

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I found my way in through an open church door, following the sounds of voices. For the next 10 minutes, until it ended, I was mesmerized. Ten monks, of different ages, stood in the center of the unadorned church with light colored robes. They sang and chanted so BEAUTIFULLY. Their voices were unbelievably clear, delicate, powerful. The evening sunlight shown in around them, like angels. An experience created way before (digital) technology, and one that technology cannot replicate.

(Click here to listen to a recording another visitor made. Rather than looking at the quick cuts of the video, close your eyes, hear the sound.)

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After the prayers ended two nuns and the very small handful of listeners moved quickly out of the church, and all but a few disappeared within two or three minutes.  Those that were left, including myself, milled around the buildings — back and forth, looking, taking photos, wondering if it was alright to take photos, sitting, getting up, moving.

After I while I noticed that a monk had walked out along a way all the way across the courtyard. He was too far away for me to be able to see his face, but his steps were calm and slow. He paused a few times, seemed to carefully assess the spot were he stood, moved further, and finally sat down on a high stone wall. He sat quite still, perhaps enjoying the evening light.

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Watching this monk I realized that even in the calmness and stillness of Provence, and this spot in particular, I wasn’t particularly calm or still.

I stopped.

I leaned my stomach against the stones of the opposite wall, facing the monk across the fields. I stood. I looked.

I became aware of all the activity around me: the busy movement of the other visitors versus the quiet, bigness of the place.

I wondered “Is it possible to be busy and neurotic in sleepy little towns of southern France?” (it seems so) And, “Would it be possible to be so composed a calm as this monk in the middle of NYC’s Chinatown crowds?” (yes, maybe) Perhaps it is not a place that makes one still, but how one conducts oneself in it.

Leaving the monastery I picked up a brochure about the community. In the brochure it explained that young men, of at least 18 years of age and interested in a monastic life, are invited to come visit the monastery. And, how can these prospective monks get in touch? Not by email or phone of course…

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(Though, to be fair, the monastery does have a website and even a Facebook page.)

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This recent article from the Washington Post is an interesting follow-up, How to Handle the Quiet?

 

Mini Portrait_K: The Global Finn and the Virtual Universe

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This is a part of a set of selected, wonderful and insightful, observations about digital living from our NYC pilot interviewees. Read their experiences of a digital diet here, and their visions of a digital future here.

Note that these mini portraits are just initial ‘samples’. There’s so much interesting material to be processed and analysed. Stay tuned!

And thank you so much, K!

The Global Finn, interviewed in NY, on his way from Vegas to Europe:

“The links [in today’s digital world] are so many that to build the real power you have to understand them.”

Crossing That Digital Border

“My digital life begun at the University of Technology in the late 80s when I was working there as a graduate assistant. I have used online banking since and that to me is a landmark. It’s also there that I begun to use email, as in a communication modality for a larger group of people. We had a great group working at the Uni and we would also play online games together.

So it was, like 1988, 1989 when my digital life shifted to a whole new level. The Internet wasn’t developed content-wise yet but it made my life easier.  And I was more daring then than today, I tried new things (laughs) and I remember I posted something on a bulletin board. So one of the other grad students, a friend of mine, sent me an email to congratulate me: “Great, now you’re on the map too!” 

I think that those bulletin boards were, like Facebook today… that you need to cross a certain border in order to understand the meaning and the seriousness, or the rules of how to act and not act.

I got my first mobile phone around 1991, through work. But GSM, texting and all that came later. At that point, using mobile phones was much more expensive… For me, that wasn’t so revolutionary. Needless to say, now it would be difficult to think a life without cell phones, so that you wouldn’t be reachable nonstop.”

When India’s Not Burning

[K works for an Indian company with a global presence. He lives in Finland.]

“I start my mornings (in Helsinki) by checking my emails on my Blackberry – at that point the day has already begun in India. If India’s not burning I can have a cup of tea. I don’t read the newspaper. The problem is that whatever is there I’ve already seen online, nothing’s new. Newspapers for me are Sunday afternoon entertainment. Actually, the first thing I do when I open my PC is to look at the news first. Both political and national, and then more like business related, so there are a few sites I’m following regularly.

I’m mostly following Finnish sites, and the reason is: I can trust them. It’s funny but there’s still this suspicion. I spoke about this with a (Finnish) friend who lives in San Jose (in the US). He says that his family, they are Swedish-speaking, they are reading Finnish and Swedish sites because they know who publishes the news. In that way, the old media have an advantage. I don’t know where my (teen-ager) son goes for news and whom he trusts, but for me the old media is important in this way.”

The Concrete, Virtual Universes

“Then I go to work and I do altogether 2-3 hours global videoconferencing, I also review presentations, I comment contract and proposal drafts, I send them back and forth (via email). I manage a team (for my company) but they are where they are. I don’t get to meet with them often, we may have one physical meeting with my European team a year.  But that’s also related to the Indian mentality (of the parent company) and their reluctance to finance lots of travel.

For leisure… well, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s sick and tired of reality TV and yet I follow a couple of them… I love cooking shows but unfortunately 80% is that reality stuff, and the rest cooking.

When I go to India (for work) I buy a lot of spices. Right now I want to buy the seeds and grind them at home because then the aroma is better. So, say, I have  bought these and these spices and the question is, what can I do with them. So then I google, say, garam masala, if I’ve made that spice mix, and chicken, if I want to cook something like that. And then I’ll find a lot of options. So at the moment I don’t use cook books at all.”

Digital Media and Structures

“I think that what digital media has done to structures is highly interesting. We used to live in a hierarchical world,with a clear structure. If you look at most of the first websites, or most of the corporate websites, they were hierarchies. Whereas… now, the way we finds things… I don’t know what to call that… It’s a chaotic mix to all directions. And what that is teaching is a new order for the world.

The Web is not a hierarchy, neither is Facebook, and I think this indicates a shift, how to widen your mind, your thoughts of the world. [The world] is not a hierarchy, there’s not a single point where, well, you could think that, “if I have this power then I’m the big guy.” So it may not be so. And the links are so many that to build the real power you have to understand them.”

Mini Portrait_DSS and Diminishing Geographical, Cultural Distances

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This is a part of a set of selected, wonderful and insightful, observations about digital living from our NYC pilot interviewees. Read their experiences of a digital diet here, and their visions of a digital future here.

Note that these mini portraits are just initial ‘samples’. There’s so much interesting material to be processed and analysed. Stay tuned!

And thank you so much, DSS!

Diminishing Geographical, Cultural Distances

Political Economy of a Life in Two Countries

“It’s been more than 10 years that I’ve lived in 2 countries that are far apart, India and the US. I came here to do my Masters in International Political Economy so I have a great interest in the world.

When I first came here (to the US) it was so expensive to communicate with my family, to make a phone call. And it was even more expensive for them to call, so we would have to ration calls, and they would call me and then I’d call back… But we would email a lot more.

But now that there are all these call centres in India and all the services that Indians do, so basically what companies did was they put up all these fiber optic cables to help communication. They made them also available to people to make calls. So now my calls to India are, well, it’s practically like making a local call (in the US). And it’s same for my family in India so now we talk all the time!”

Digital, Global, Professional Turning Point

“I don’t know if there was any one point in my life, I’ve taken up digital technology gradually… It (smart phone) gives me a lot of freedom, to run errands, and if something comes up I can respond immediately.

But in a way the turning point is coming right now. In my company, everybody’s paying more attention to what’s happening outside of America, especially in the high-growth countries outside the West. So they are very interested in me being the bridge between that world and this (US) world.I just completed a collection of article on China and am now moving on to researching and writing about Africa.

Because of technology  I can be anywhere and

send information here, or I’m here and in touch with a lot of people elsewhere and it’s all very quick and easy. We do a lot of videoconferencing, but now even that’s a little old, our offices have Skype…

So I’m feeling this digital change more in my career than personally – I still want to see my family. A Facebook interaction with them is not enough. But professionally, it’s great. Probably all this will allow us (DSS and husband) spend a lot of time in India, my husband has had similar conversations at work…”

Appreciation for Multicultural Identity

“I think companies have now great appreciation for people who can function in more than one culture. Because, you know, the previous generation of people who would come from places like India — where there was no economic opportunity there – here people would not understand anything and thing, oh, these people are just desperate immigrants. There was this pressure to assimilate all the time.

Now, there’s not. Now you can be your own person and it’s and advantage because people know more. They are more connected. In that way, I feel helped by technology!”

iPad Afficionado

(On being global, on being mobile …)

“Books and music are always the most heaviest… I’m thinking, when everything is in this (iPad), how easy it is!”


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