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Why I Heart Slow Media (and So Can You)

Not long ago, I found myself in front of a friend’s apartment in New York City, throwing rocks at her window.

During six months of using only Slow Media, my writing desk looked pretty much like this one.

My arm — and my aim — were good enough to strike glass on the second floor. But her apartment was on the third. I puzzled over how to get her attention. Wait for someone to come outside? Set off my car alarm? The problem was, she didn’t have a doorbell. In the end, I hunted down a payphone to call my friend because while most pockets and purses hold digital devices, mine did not.

Why? After reveling in the wonders of digital media for 20 years, I had abandoned the Internet for six months. An exhibit of exquisite letters by the illustrator Edward Gorey had got me thinking about material artifacts that get overshadowed by digital communication. I missed making printed correspondence — and receiving it. I hoped that going offline for a while would revive analog habits like sending letters and postcards, which used to bring such pleasure. My digital disenchantment, though, was about much more than mail.

Once upon a time, I devoted hours to tactile and corporeal activities: teaching myself calligraphy, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, printing photos in a pungent darkroom. I browsed through record stores, libraries, bookshops, and other purveyors of “printed, bound media artifacts,” as Gary Shteyngart calls them. I realized that offline leisure had gradually been pushed aside as I spent more time looking at screens. I had always imagined myself a renaissance person, but digital media left me feeling one-dimensional. Like many of us, I began to find the blessings of digital media more ambiguous and the burdens heavier. The prospect of temporarily living offline piqued my curiosity. (Maybe you wonder what it would be like, too.)

It struck me that people could apply Slow Food ideals to the way they used media. I didn’t want to do everything slow all the time, just create space for a gentler tempo that counterbalances and complements Fast Media. At the time, I felt alone in having connected Slow Food with media. Yet I speculated that a movement of like-minded people might be out there somewhere. I grappled with these ideas in my blog, Slow Media. I eventually encountered a Slow Media group on Facebook and was glad to learn that others had “co-discovered” the notion of Slow Media with me.

I devised an ambitious experiment: to go offline for six months. I yearned to re-direct time and energy toward unmediated pastimes. I wanted to reassess the role of media in my life from a detached perspective, inspired by Marshall McLuhan’s quip that “We don’t know who discovered water, but it probably wasn’t a fish.” In other words, you can’t clearly perceive a substance or situation that you’re immersed in.

My plan was to revert to media technologies from two decades earlier: the year 1989, before the Internet and cellphones began their ascent. Any print was kosher: newspapers, magazines, books. I listened to vinyl records and audio-cassettes. I watched cable TV and VCR tapes. I used a typewriter or offline computer for writing (nothing networked or downloaded or “in the cloud”). I made calls on a landline phone and listened to terrestrial radio.

When it came to other people’s uses of technology to connect with me, I had no preference. I didn’t direct them to do (or not do) anything that they would not normally do on their own. If someone called me on their cellphone, I would talk to them. If a travel agent went online to book my flight, so be it. If people providing me products or services required the Internet to do their jobs, que sera sera. Whatever they did behind the scenes didn’t change my experience.

A conversation with reporter Sally Herships sparked a story about Slow Media on NPR’s Marketplace that spread through the blogosphere and captured the public imagination. After announcing my unplugging project to global audiences of National Public Radio, there was no turning back.

I Heart Digital Media, Too!

Somehow people have gotten the idea that I hate digital media. Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear. This story is not about how life was so much better in [insert decade here] before there were [insert technology here]. You should not be surprised to hear that I love many things about digital media. Really, wouldn’t my unplugging project have been boring if I hated the Internet? There would be no challenge, no sacrifice. It would be like me giving up pickles or sardines for Lent.

I realize how lucky we are to have digital technology, especially for communicating with each other. It was lonely living overseas in the 1980s, when I was out of touch with friends and family back in the U.S. I also lived abroad in the 90s, when the Internet was too slow to be very useful and landline calls to the States were prohibitively expensive. Like most of us, I was dazzled by all the things that we can do with the Internet: sending free messages across the globe, finding information instantly that used to be practically inaccessible, sharing blogs and photos and videos with everyone, everywhere. Information technology was setting us free! And people who didn’t use new media? So backwards. Luddites. They just didn’t get it.

It wasn’t an easy decision to put digital media on a back burner. I chose that path because it felt like — still does, sometimes — there were just been too many days when I woke up and went on the Internet to check messages, and before I knew it, six or eight hours had slipped away while I was reading email, sending email, clicking on links, checking Facebook, just roving around the web. At the end of the day, I often felt like — still do, sometimes — I had not achieved enough meaningful things with my limited time on earth.

My experiences as a teacher, a scholar, and a human being drew me toward Slow Media, though being a contrarian drove me just as much. The more I talked with people about going offline, and the more they said it was impossible, the more it stoked me to prove I could. A lot of people laughed when I told them the plan. Reactions fell into two camps: 1) it’s an undesirable plan and cannot be done; or 2) it’s an admirable plan and cannot be done. Their resistance only strengthened my resolve.

Some friends teased that I should get out my Walkman player and rabbit-ear antennas. One dear old pal had faith in my ability to carry out the project because, she said, I was good at denying myself things. (I hope she noticed that I just called her “old.”) Unplugging doesn’t feel like self-denial when you focus on what you’re getting, not what you’re giving up. This kind of positive denial helps you escape what scholars call the “hedonic treadmill,” which turns novel pleasures into mere comforts and, eventually, into disappointments that no longer bring joy. In other words, abstaining from digital media helps you get more satisfaction from them.

To me, another great allure of Slow principles is time politics. It’s typical for an academic like me to spend more than 60 hours a week working. Professional duties have colonized our nights, weekends and leisure time in part thanks to — you guessed it — digital media. Mundane activities such as exercise, personal care and household maintenance are often pushed aside. (Thus the stereotype of professors being absent-minded and style-challenged might be justified). Studies show that physical and psychological strain in academia exceeds that found in the general population.

Academics are not alone in their struggle to achieve work-life balance, of course, but they feel the time crunch keenly. In an MIT survey, 78 percent of faculty reported that “no matter how hard they work, they can’t get everything done.” That’s compared to 48 percent of CEOs. Universities have slashed resources for professors while increasing workloads, productivity expectations, competition, assessments and scrutiny. Meanwhile, there’s less time for things that beckoned us to the academy in the first place: reading, writing, reflection, deliberation, collegiality.

I could not change university culture or its capitulation to corporate values like efficiency, quantification, and speed. But I could resist the pressure to work more, better, faster — by curbing my own media use. Slow Media offers a method of personal intervention.

It took months of preparation to plan and implement my Slow Media project. I began in April by renting a P.O. box, digging out old videocassette and record players, installing a landline, and tracking down Polaroid film and typewriter ribbons. I abandoned my computer three months later: on July 4, with a nod to Independence Day as well as Thoreau’s legendary retreat to Walden Pond.

The Proverbial Fish Out of Water

Okay, let’s 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 consider. 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.

Analog media became the new lens through which I viewed the world. Some of the dialogue in the 1980 movie My Dinner with André struck a special chord, in this context. In talking about how we experience reality, André tells Wally that boredom is an illusion, a tool of oppression, used to suppress dissent. People thought I would suffer horribly in depriving myself of the Internet and cellphones, but to me it felt more like liberation.

I did allow a small release valve, by letting myself go online for one hour per month. I guarded that time carefully, meting out 15 minutes per week with a kitchen timer ticking nearby. Having limited time online makes you focus on the things that really matter. It’s a microcosm for setting priorities in life beyond the screen.

My unplugging experiment ended on New Year’s Eve 2011, at the very moment when my husband broke his cellphone. We were heading to a party right before midnight. The destination address was on his phone — which he had left at our house, too far away to retrieve. Having failed to find the party, we returned home, where he tossed his device across the room a little too hard. There we were, a professional couple — a journalism professor and a creative technologist, no less — with nary a cellphone between us. The scene was a trenchant reminder of digital devices’ centrality in the modern world to which I had, somewhat ambivalently, returned.

My motives for introducing Slow Media to a wider audience are not entirely selfless. Today, it would be harder for me to go offline for six months than it was in 2010. I would like to do it again someday, and I need help. What’s more, I want you to be able to unplug when you want to. It’s time for the silent majority to speak up, to seek better ways of living, to promote human and environmental sustainability through slower media use and production.

None of us can do it alone.

Author’s note: This story is adapted from my book Slow Media: Why Slow is Satisfying, Sustainable and Smart, published by Oxford University Press. You can learn more about me at http://jennifer-rauch.com.