Book of the Week: Slow Media

26 Feb|Dr Jennifer Rauch

In a landscape dominated by 24-hour news and constant connectivity, researcher Dr Jennifer Rauch offers alternative ways to think about the ways in which we use digital media. Rather than fast, mindless consumption, the Slow Media movement advocates attitudes that are more sustainable and more satisfying, such as unplugging and monotasking, without giving up on digital technologies entirely. In essence, it encourages a more mindful approach to our relationship with media, something the Idler can certainly get behind. In the extract below, Jennifer shares the experience of her first digital detox.

Quick: Where’s the nearest payphone to wherever you are now? Chances are good that you passed one recently and didn’t notice. During my Slow Media project, I regularly had to locate coin-operated phones. When I asked store clerks, bartenders, and strangers on the streets of New York City where to find one, they could rarely direct me toward a payphone—even if there was one within eyesight, on a path they trod daily. People would say there were no payphones nearby, and I would soon spot one a few yards away.

Like many people, you probably do not notice public phones in your physical environment. Unless you are alone somewhere with a broken-down car and desperate for a ride or tow and forgot your cellphone (or you have a dead battery or you cannot get a signal), they no longer seem relevant. When you do not have a digital device in your hand, your powers of observation kick into higher gear. Your perspective on the world shifts. Living offline feels like being an ethnographer, like doing fieldwork on your own culture. It gives the same kind of intercultural stimulation that you get from traveling, without leaving home or spending a dime. (Except, perhaps, a little spare change for payphones.)

Some questions to gauge your readiness for taking an Internet sabbatical: Do you keep printed road maps in your car? When’s the last time you used the yellow pages or sent a postcard? Do you have a landline? Turntable? Film camera? Fax machine? Clock radio? Stand-alone calculator? Manual or electronic typewriter? Wristwatch? Newspaper subscription? Address book? Do you care about the quality of your penmanship? When spending significant time without a cellphone or computer, these are some things to stock up on and think about. (…)

This might make unplugging sound so awfully inconvenient that you rule out the idea of trying it. Not so! Don’t get me wrong: it is inconvenient. Yet the experiment brought me pleasure, opened my eyes, and defied my expectations. Some of the dialogue about our experience of reality in the 1980 movie My Dinner with André—which I watched on VHS during my offline experiment—struck a special chord, in this context. André tells Wally that boredom is an illusion, a tool of oppression, used to suppress dissent. Analog media became the new lens through which I viewed the world.

People assumed I would suffer horribly my depriving myself of the Internet and cellphones, but to me it felt more like liberation. Conventional wisdom says that going online saves time and helps you get more done. On the contrary, I felt like unplugged days were longer and more productive. Things often got done faster in analog mode than digitally—like when I found phone numbers in the printed directory quicker than my husband did with a search engine. The Internet is our default resource, but it’s not always the best one.

There’s also the myth that older people dislike digital devices more than young people. You might expect Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers who grew up without smartphones to show more sympathy for my analog lifestyle than Millennials did (people born in the 1990s, roughly speaking). However, my 20-something friends entered into the spirit of the experiment more readily than older adults, who chided me for not conforming to their own habits and cultural expectations, as well as for “inconveniencing” them.

I did allow a small release valve, letting myself go online for a total of one hour per month. I guarded that time carefully, meting out 15 minutes per week with a kitchen timer ticking nearby. On the first of each month, I was always excited to get my new hour. (…) I did fall off the wagon a couple of times, mostly when planning my wedding. (Unless you, too, have recently spent six months without Internet access while shopping for a wedding dress, I refuse your judgment.) Having a limited amount of time online makes you focus on the things that really matter. It’s a microcosm for setting priorities in life beyond the screen.

Living more mindfully in the material world prompted me to form a panopoly of new habits that persist today. Borring movies from the library, instead of streaming entertainment. Keeping a printed dictionary and thesaurus on my desk, instead of using online resources. Shopping in brick-and-mortar stores, instead of ordering online. Making phone calls, instead of sending emails. People thought I was closing myself off from experience and connection by going offline. Paradoxically, I was opening myself to new experiences and different kinds of connection.

An extract from Slow Media: Why “Slow” is Satisfying, Sustainable and Smart by Jennifer Rauch (Oxford University Press, £22.99).