One of my favorite short stories is Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian.” In a future world, where everyone lives for television, Leonard Mead likes to go walking alone at night. During one of his pedestrian jaunts, he is arrested and sent to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies. After all, why would anyone wish to be out in the moonlight, drinking in the air, when s/he could be inside staring at a shiny box?
Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit for effect, but I felt a little bit like Leonard Mead last week when I gave up media consumption, for science. If embracing technology is progressive, and eschewing it is regressive, I wanted to create my own little Center for Regressive Tendencies and see what horrible things would happen as a result of stepping out of the lifestream for a little while.
I’m pleased to report that nobody died, and nothing caught fire. I did, however, learn a lot about my media consumption patterns, including a few things that surprised me. And, because I’m human, I totally fell off the wagon on one memorable occasion…but in an unexpected way.
Overall, it was a relief to step away from the near-constant stream of news and information modern culture provides. While I missed the psychological rituals around reading a print newspaper, for example, doing without the actual content made me feel lighter and happier. Not once was I tempted to skim news online. Co-workers, most of whom didn’t know I was media fasting, clued me in on everything important happening locally and nationally, so I was still able to discuss current events with patrons.
When I did engage with job-related technology functions, I did so with a critical eye toward how much time I spent doing it, and whether or not it was to my ultimate benefit. After two days of analyzing job-related newsreading, I was able to unsubscribe from a lot of services, as they were either repetitive or not adding value to my workday. I found out I could fuss over Eleventh Stack and CLPicks much less than I do, and still maintain high standards. Best of all, I felt a lot less frazzled and a lot more clear-headed. It’s one thing to know, logically, that you can’t process all the information that’s out there; it’s another thing entirely to feel the practical effects of voluntarily limiting what you consume.
At the reference desk, I turned the media fast into a creative challenge: how many questions could I answer without turning to the world wide web or a database? Many of them, as it turns out. Never underestimate the power of the humble dictionary, thesaurus, almanac, phone book, and encyclopedia to get you what you need. At my library, we also keep Consumer Reports (including the buying guides), Morningstar and ValueLine at desk reference too, and with good reason, because they’re asked for a lot.
[What's interesting there is that even when we let people know they have web options for accessing these materials, 9 times out of 10 they still prefer print - just life in the magic print-centric bubble that is Pittsburgh, I reckon...but I digress.]
Overall, I found myself slowing down more, paying closer attention to things, and, as a result, becoming a lot more efficient and effective. I was even able to make time to do things I’ve been trying to do for months, like reorganizing my work space. This tendency carried over to personal projects I’d been working on, allowing me to win National Novel Writing Month three days early, finish a number of other writing tasks, and spend a lot more time with my family, friends, and cats. I walked for miles and miles, because I could, and I even made homemade pizza crusts for the first time in years (until you’ve tasted my homemade pizzas, you simply cannot understand what a boon this is to humanity).
Loveliest of all, I read a lot of books. Slowly. In print. I savored every moment I could spent with a physical text object in my hands, curled up in a comfy place, with coffee by my side. Here’s a partial list:
The Adept, Kurtz/Harris. First in a series. Fantasy fiction, but with a tone like Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series. If you like your magick high, crispy and historically accurate, you might enjoy this one.
The Ancient Mysteries Reader, Haining, ed. Poe! Machen! Bulwer-Lytton! Love! Er, that is to say, if you fancy rare 19th-century gems of fact and fiction, this is your book.
Rainbow’s End, Vinge. This one’s singular: loads of conspiracy theory and politics wrapped around medical advances that incorporate technology with humanity. Oh, and a white rabbit. A lovely, head-scratcher of a novel for those who like their sci-fi complicated and a touch pessimistic.
The Stories of John Cheever. For my fiction class, but no less lovely for all that. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed classic stories like “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer.” It was lovely, too, to discover just how deeply his gifts ran through the canon of his work. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, various. Some Clark Ashton Smith stories that were “new to me,” as well as My First Machen (and if that’s not yet a stuffed animal, look out patent office, because here I come). Lovecraft is okay, I suppose, but I’m far fonder of what his friends and literary descendants did with what he gave them.
The Complete Stories, O’Connor. Also for my fiction class. When you read Flannery O’Connor, you can feel the genius rising up from the page. What’s most beautiful about this collection is the arrangement, which follows the order of original publication. Best of all, the first story in the collection, “The Geranium”–which appeared as part of O’Connor’s MFA thesis–grows and blossoms into “Judgement Day,” a revision she published near the end of her life. Beautiful fiction, bookended by the growth of genius. Also, peacocks!
Desert Gothic, Waters. This prizewinning short story collection caught my eye by virtue of its title, and kept my eye by virtue of its attention to characterization. Rarely does one care so much about the people one meets in short stories, but I found myself almost believing they were real (no mean feat, given my cynical, critical eye). “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer” and “Mineral and Steel” are the standouts here, but the whole collection is a solid way to pass the time, if you like quality short fiction.
The Elegant Gathering of White Snows, Radish. Reviewed this for Eleventh Stack. I have nothing to add but this: sisterhood is powerful.
I’ll spare you the non-fiction picks. Interested parties please ping – if I took the time to list them, we’d be here all night! Suffice to say, with so many good books to read, being without technology was mostly no problem. There were, however, one or two glitches in the system.
Perhaps “uncomfortable” is a better word. See for yourself.
While most of the media fast proved beneficial, there were some less-than-pleasant aspects to it. For one thing, about four days in, I started really missing Facebook.
When you get to be my age–suffice to say I’m one of those people over thirty you’re not supposed to trust–you know a lot of people. Not as many as those of you further along in life, but a lot. And, the economy being what it is, not all of them live in Pittsburgh. Thanks to Facebook, I’m in close contact with people from grade school chums through library school peers. Having them all in the same place is even better, because then they get to meet each other; it makes me deeply happy to know that I’ve introduced tons of people who originally had nothing but me in common, and now have solid, established friendships of their own.
So, solitary creature that I am, I still enjoy being social, on my own terms, and Facebook made that easy. Without it–even though I had a pretty full social calendar–I still felt disconnected from a lot of people I care about. Avoiding it was psychologically challenging, and when I logged in at the end of the week, I felt re-connected…even though, technically, I hadn’t missed anything life or career-changing.
I also missed YouTube like crazy. As, I suspect, a compensation for my extremely poor eyesight, I’m very sensitive to sound, highly musical. There’s always a tune in my head, and I like to listen to music while I do mundane tasks.
A little silence was wholesome and beneficial for me, to be sure. The funny thing about silence, though, is that the more you have of it, the more clarity you achieve in certain areas…and that cuts both ways. I had a number of epiphanies, both bright and dark, and learned quite a few things about myself that I didn’t even realize I was covering up by having a constant soundtrack. Ultimately this is for the good, but it was a somewhat uncomfortable process to go through.
Finally, I did fall off the wagon once, in a very big way that I did not expect.
My dislike of television is legendary around here. I don’t own a set, and I’m really fussy about what series I check out on DVD. This could be because, television-wise, I’m a serial monogamist. I like my Dr. Who old-school, my X-Files episodes with no UST whatsoever, and my vampires non-negotiably non-sparkly, kthnxbye. I am, in short, a television snob.
And then, straight out of left field, Torchwood.
I’d been on hold for this forever, as the wait list was very long. I had no way of knowing my number would come up during my media fast. I was just going to watch one episode anyway, to be polite, and not hurt a co-worker’s feelings. So I figured this would be no big deal, a teensy little rule-break.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with the darn thing. Much like meeting the perfect romantic partner when you least expect it, watching Torchwood hit me like a ton of bricks, and I am now an unapologetic, unabashed Capt. Jack Harkness fangirl.
Darn you, sir. Darn you all to heck! You know who you are.
In all seriousness, this isn’t really a bad thing either. Quality television shows are rare, and since nobody will sell me an a la carte package with just BBC America in it, I’m always grateful to get the scoop on the good stuff. But do I really need to get sucked into another television show? What about all the writing I need to do, and all those as-yet unkneaded homemade pizza crusts?
I’ve come away from this little experiment more convinced than ever that there are definite benefits to putting limits on one’s media intake and social technology consumption. At the same time, I’ve also come to realize just how much I depend on certain media for some things, and am actively questioning whether or not that’s what I really want.
In other words, moderation and critical thinking, two things that seem sorely lacking from many fields of discourse these days. It’s unfortunate that moving more slowly on some matters, or exhibiting a degree of skepticism and/or scientific inquiry, is perceived as regressive. I’m a huge fan of changes and advances, but, I would argue, those changes and advances should be playtested. Anything embraced uncritically, and without limits, has the potential to do great harm.
Indeed, I think, it gives us societies like the one that scorned poor Leonard Mead. Enchanted by the glow from their television sets, the deluded populace probably never stopped to consider the moon. Let us hope that, as library scientists, we can apply the same standards to our own media participation, keep what is useful, and reject what is, ultimately, distracting us from the other valuable realities all around us.
In other words, seriously, you need to try one of my homemade pizzas. Just call or text before you come over; I might be watching Torchwood.
Things I want to write about at some point include:
- the day I spent at my library as a patron instead of a worker
- how a library vibe differs from a coffeeshop vibe, IMHO, and why the twain should not necessarily meet
- a news update from the big white elephant, who was recently put on a diet (whew)
Until next week sometime, however, I remain your cheerfully irreverent alchemist. Have a good weekend!