I have a prediction for 2020, and it’s that it will be the year of being not extremely online, not extremely offline, but rather medium online. In the age of feeling at once tightly wound and burned out, I’d like to imagine the near future will bring about some element of hive mind, where a collective intolerance for tech’s ubiquity and our desire to be constantly connected lands us somewhere in between the two.
Or maybe I’m just projecting. I’m finding the funny, mundane, oxymoronic idea of extreme moderation to be kind of aspirational. How can I take advantage of technology and screens where they’re really helpful, and reject them where they’re not? How can I introduce the analog back into my lifestyle? How can I organize my day so it doesn’t feel like bopping from one kind of screen to the next? And how can I stay tethered to the online world, but treat it like a pen pal instead of an all-encompassing alternate reality? These are the questions I asked myself when I began to experiment with being medium online myself.
My inspiration came in the form of an unwelcome reckoning. Over the course of this last year, I’ve noticed that my most prized feature, a long attention span, has started to erode. I blame the infinitely expanding browser tabs and the burning blue Retina displays everywhere I turn. Writer Anne Helen Petersen once described her days as “switching between inboxes until I pass out,” and I relate to this more acutely every day. And nothing makes me feel like an aimless truffle pig quite like my social media habit. It’s trained me to always be searching for a nugget of intrigue that is actually so easily found—in spades—elsewhere (a bookshelf! a magazine’s archive! a newspaper! my Criterion Collection subscription!). When I think about the apparatus of social media and interrogate my interest in it for more than three seconds, I find it so boring.
At a certain point every afternoon, I feel allergic to screens. Like a flight crew, I time out. To remedy this, I head outside for a walk, and feel a twinge of defeat each time I encounter a new LinkNYC monitor installed on a New York street or a screen glaring from the top of a taxi. I’m out here walking because I’m trying to escape!
I know I’m not alone in this feeling, because the proof is in the publishing pudding. There’s been a groundswell of recently released books on the topic: 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology by Cal Newport, and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal, to name a few. And it’s no secret that How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell holds court as a Man Repeller HQ favorite.
The urge to reprogram my habits mounted all summer, culminating in a real pang for change in August. Over the course of a week, I unsubscribed from the vast majority of my newsletters, turned off the most pestering of push notifications, and set my “Social” screen time to five minutes a day, acknowledging that I didn’t need to be the friend who knew the intricacies of every Twitter controversy or who stood at the forefront of every meme. I traded the hyper-efficiency of subway-going to more often taking the bus—maybe the most medium-online option in New York’s MTA system. I researched tools like the Lightphone, and considered the upsides of being medium-reachable. I then tested a few unusual approaches, using a few quasi-oldfangled apparatuses and strategies to mediate my relationship with technology. They were as follows.
1. Tech Shabbat
In her book 24/6, Tiffany Shlain recommends adopting one element of a traditional Jewish Shabbat: no technology after sundown on Friday night. Shlain’s family has been turning off all screens for a full day each week for a decade, and she says it’s reconfigured the family’s relationship to technology and to each other. For the TL;DR version of her book, you can get the gist in eleven minutes here.
I came of age in the era of the analog phase-out, particularly in school: I was one of the last students to use my high school’s darkroom, and in the last class of my college’s film department to shoot with a super 16mm camera, the Bolex, and then edit the long tangles of film on a colossal machine called the Steenbeck. I stood on a now-mythological “cutting room floor.” Seeking out a (partial) return to my analog roots, Shlain’s Tech Shabbat offered the most direct path.
I gave it a whirl a few weeks ago, and look forward to instating another soon. In the daylight of Friday, I printed out a bunch of reading material for a project I’ve been researching, and I looked forward to sundown like it was an event. Excited to dig into my stack of papers without distraction, I scribbled notes all over with my new Marvy pens and lost track of time. My one grumble was that all my music is digital, so it turned out to be an awfully quiet night. Do you remember the 2010s, when all of those thinkpieces bubbled up in The New York Times, redefining the “hipster” who lives ironically in our modern times? The lasting memory of these stories makes me feel guilty for wanting a portable turntable, but that’s where I’m at these days.
There’s strength in numbers, so I’d recommend rallying a group if you’re giving a Tech Shabbat a go.
This summer I spent a good bit of time allowing my mind and my cursor to wander to the topic of typewriters. (Blame the strange alchemy of reading this story, “Typewriter Man,” by Ian Frazier and an interview with biographer Robert Caro about his noisy process in the same month.) I sized a few machines up at a New England antiques emporium, and fantasized about a Valentine Olivetti that I’ve only ever seen behind glass in my college’s museum. The dream kind of died when I became intimidated by typewriter ribbon, which I’ve never handled before, and when I considered that I’d be filing my drafts to Haley Nahman via the U.S. Postal Service instead of Google Docs.
In my research, I struck middle-ground: The QWERKYWRITER is a Bluetooth keyboard that syncs to, in my case, an iPad, thereby encouraging some tunnel-vision on a device that only shows one application at a time, soothing me with the manual clack-clack-clacking of its tactile keys. I was most excited to try the QWERKYWRITER because it most obviously paid homage to the innovations of the past (a typewriter’s “disruptive” technology remains so underrated—it was an all-in-one, instantaneous word processor and printer!). While I loved the QWERKYWRITER, for both its handsome optics and its silliness, the ratio of screen to keyboard threw me off; my iPad seemed so minuscule in its cradle. Maybe there’s something to be said for this transfer of power, though—with a keyboard that dwarfs a screen, I can see myself asserting control over technology instead of feeling like tech governs me.
I concluded that the QWERKYWRITER might be best suited to impassioned correspondence, bringing the romance and drama back into writing emails, and maybe not as much to high-volume typing projects like writing The Next Great American Novel. Either way, perching at the foot of the QWERKYWRITER made me feel like Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks.
For years, I’d been admiring OSTRICHPILLOW’s “Immersive Napping Pillow” from afar, and figured that the time was nigh to try it. To paint a picture, it looks like a Teletubby has taken over your head. (On a bad day, you might bear likeness to one of the aliens in the Spice World movie.) I liked repurposing OSTRICHPILLOW as a tool for my analog diet because the technology is simple: All it does is obstruct your face from a screen, or from anything for that matter. That said, while the OSTRICHPILLOW was both snuggly and well-ventilated, I found that the hardest thing about it was admitting to myself that I needed a break. Everything after that was soft, muffled, and easy.
I think the ultimate luxury would be putting on the OSTRICHPILLOW while sounding the bells of a meditation app, but I haven’t tried it yet.
My fieldwork revealed that the Freewrite, in comparison with the QWERKYWRITER, was the more orthodox choice among medium-online writers. When I asked product design company Astrohaus about borrowing their Freewrite to test out, they warned that it might take some getting used to. The Freewrite is a distraction-free writing tool that answers the question: What if a label-maker and an Etch-a-Sketch had a baby? But the underlying tech is nifty as all hell and, with a Kindle-like display, only as sophisticated as it needs to be: It uploads your text to a Cloud of your choice as you write. Astrohaus told me it’s “designed to fit within a writing methodology where you draft top to bottom and edit later on your computer…. You can delete words but there are no arrow keys on the device for this reason; everything is intended to keep the writer moving forward.” I accepted the challenge and found myself pleasantly surprised.
In conversation, it’s all too easy and also frowned-upon to always be thinking about the next thing you’re going to say, and yet this mindset is somehow impossible to replicate when sitting down to write. The Freewrite is the closest I’ve come to simulating this experience when writing. Without arrow keys and the ability to edit your work as you write, this device makes you indulge in your own thought process. It did feel like a burden had been lifted when I realized there’d be no way to check my email or receive texts on its interface. Earning its name, the Freewrite’s ideal for a first go at a rough draft.
This is a good old-fashioned notepad, a gift that only months ago I never thought I’d use. In the last few months, I’ve written many a rough draft on this personalized notepad, sometimes in the passenger seat of a car. I went back to my high school history class for a day and took notes with it, too. Seeing my handwriting (a visual that is near non-existent on social media) on buttery paper reminds me that I’m not a drone. My enthusiasm for this item opened the floodgates to a few new Moleskines, picked out with painstaking particularity at McNally Jackson, in the same amount of time I’ve dedicated to selecting a laptop model. I’d rate this notepad I found in my desk drawer as my favorite piece of technology yet.
Graphic by Lorenza Centi. Photos by Edith Young and via The Smudge.