In Praise of Lo-fi
January 30, 2009
Whenever I travel, I feel a remarkable sense of clarity on the return trip. It usually hits me as I’m staring out the window of the airplane cabin or train car. I think it happens because on the way there, you have all this pent-up anticipation — you’re looking forward to seeing old friends or new cities, and chances are you’re still worrying a bit about hotel confirmations. And whether all your stuff made it through airport security.
But it’s different on the way home. You know exactly where you’re headed and what’s happening once you set foot on solid ground. If you’re coming back from vacation, you’re probably not in any hurry to return to the chaos of everyday life. If there aren’t any crying babies or stray pigeons, you’re happy where you are, taking in the now of things.
Plus it helps that there’s no wi-fi or cell coverage on that plane, am I right?
“For your information, the Internet — if you’re connected to it— automatically turns off at 10,000 feet during descent.”
I heard those words for the first time on my way back from LA last week, thanks to the inflight wi-fi service on my American Airlines jet. Scary. If you’re reading this site, it’s likely that having an instantaneous, always-connected, accessible-everywhere pipe of information is already the rule, rather than the exception. And the way we’re headed, disconnectedness is turning into even more of an anomaly.
It’s scary because I don’t think we’re properly equipped to deal with the new choices technology offers us. In the grand scheme of things, the way our brains are wired hasn’t changed much over the past few centuries — we’re running new software on old hardware.
So what happens when the situations that once forced us to disconnect start to disappear? What happens when the entire globe is blanketed with wi-fi and iPhones don’t run out of batteries? What happens when we have to consciously decide to switch things off?
The opportunities for deep contemplation and big-picture thinking get put at risk. Personally, I rarely have big ideas while sitting in front of a computer or staring at my phone. Those types of things usually come to me when I’m walking down the street or in bed about to call it a night. Unless we start adopting the kind of habits to manage how and when we connect, willpower won’t stand a chance against computing power.
The Hanjin Boston is a Korean-built freighter ship that transports thousands of shipping containers filled with scrap metal across the Pacific. It’s common for these freighter ships to come equipped with a few nicely-furnished cabins for passengers seeking adventure (or lack thereof) on the high seas.
Photo courtesy of Rob Long
On a recent voyage from Seattle to Shanghai, one such passenger was a Hollywood screenwriter named Rob Long. Long went on one of these freighter cruises in order to devote undistracted time to a few of his writing projects. He spoke about the journey on his weekly podcast, Martini Shot.
“I recognize [it] is an extreme solution – couldn’t you just check into a hotel? Someone asked me, unaware, apparently, that hotels have dozens of soft-core offerings on demand. Couldn’t you just turn off your wi-fi? Another naive soul asked, as if that’s the kind of thing a person can do, just turn it off and stop Twittering.
No, the right thing to do is what I’ve done. Book passage on the Hanjin Boston, from Seattle to Shanghai, face King Neptune and write the damn script.”
We’re not all in the position to spend three weeks floating across the ocean on our own industrial versions of Walden Pond, but I think these types of retreats are only going to get more appealing. And while we might not be able to change our minds’ ability to deal with an overwhelming amount of information, we can do things to force ourselves into environments and situations better suited for reflection.
Lo-fi time, I call it. And it’s about blocking off time for sitting still and letting your mind wander. Or going for walks without necessarily trying to get anywhere. I very rarely take my Macbook to cafes anymore and sometimes I conveniently “forget” my phone at home. Even though most of my own work ends up living digitally, there are plenty of things to do that don’t require a computer.
Airlines do what they can to help you make the time go by faster. The more you’re distracted — with 30,000 movies, on-demand mp3s, seat-to-seat video games and now wi-fi—the less you’re thinking about how much you hate flying. I used to write ads about these kinds of modern conveniences and there’s nothing wrong with that… if we think of plane rides as necessary evils. But maybe we should consider these lo-fi zones as a blessing rather than a curse; as places to be enjoyed, rather than endured. ’Cause before you know it, the cloud will be everywhere, and not even a cruise on a freighter ship will provide escape.