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The diametric pull towards technology vs. wildness

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Jan 12, 2023 •
categories: technical-writing

Not long ago, I decided to take up a goal of walking for two hours a day. The goal didn't last more than two weeks, but the trajectory informed me about my ongoing push and pull with technology. However much I try to break away from tech's screens, I'm drawn to them because of their continual inflow of multifaceted information; it's like a magnetic pull. At the same time, there's an opposing pull in the opposite direction: towards wildness, as Thoreau puts it.

Getting outside, away from screens

As the start of the new year approached, I tried to think of some meaningful activity I could incorporate that would be transformational (equivalent to giving up my smartphone). I thought back to an experiment I’d done the previous year in which I’d exercised for 2 hours a day for 50 days (see Experiments: What would happen if I exercised 2 hours a day?). The experiment gave me a boost of energy and reinvigorated my body, making it so I preferred standing and walking to sitting in many scenarios.

So I decided to formalize the goal—walking for two hours a day outside—to try and make it a permanent habit. This time around, however, I didn’t just want to exercise; I wanted to be outside. Why walk outside? At the time, I’d grown increasingly weary of the sedentary, screen-based life of working in tech. I was tired of sitting in a corporate or home office all day, with my butt parked for eight hours on a padded chair, eyes focused on the artificial light of a screen, almost no body movement except for the tapping of my fingers across a keyboard, legs growing stiff the longer I sit, hours passing me by until the sky grows dark and it’s time to go home.

Sitting at a computer living the sedentary tech life

This life in tech, a life of sitting and screen-staring, gave me an increasing itch to get outside and feel the natural elements, whether sun or rain, wind or cold. I wanted to feel the weather on my face, to transition my narrowly focused computer stare into a panoramic vision of the sky and outdoors.

I’d also been reading a cyberskeptic book called May I Ask a Technical Question? by Jeff Krinock and Matt Hoff. The authors push back against the blind tradeoffs we often take on when we incorporate technology. As a former pilot, Krinock says digital monitors during flight numbed his situational awareness, reducing his ability to sense when something was wrong. Autopilot gave him digital dementia about how to act in emergencies (once auto-pilot was off). He and Hoff encourage constant questioning, inspection, and caution about the effects of technology, urging us to “measure and consider what human and social tasks, abilities, traditions, skillsets, and opportunities they displace” (39). I couldn’t help but feel, on some level, that my life was reduced by being in front of the screen.

Krinock and Hoff’s book is just one of many technoskeptic voices that have recently emerged. I think the trend fits into a growing disillusion about technology. Let’s take a step back in the timeline to see how we got here.

The road to technoskepticism

In The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly says that before we knew what the Internet would grow to be, big media was skeptical that the Internet could have enough content to pull people away from traditional media sources. No one foresaw that consumers themselves would create the needed content. Kelly writes:

We all missed the big story. Neither old ABC nor startup Yahoo! created the content for 5,000 web channels. Instead billions of users created the content for 5,000 web channels. There weren’t 5,000 channels but 500 million channels, all customer generated. The disruption ABC could not imagine was that this “internet stuff” enabled the formerly dismissed passive consumers to become active creators. (19).

Web 2.0 saw the proliferation of amateur blogs, vlogs, and other content creators filling every niche with an abundant stream of content, eventually displacing traditional media. I started my blog in 2006, as did many others in tech comm, and I enjoyed watching people turn to blogs and other amateur content more than the old print media of industry publications. Everyone had a voice, it seemed, and no niche was too granular. Kelly attributes the abundance of user-created content as the key to establishing the Internet as a permanent fixture, displacing traditional media. We celebrated the abundance of content creators producing and sharing free content out of their own passions and hobbies. Newspapers were going out of business.

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Then at some point, content creators shifted to social sharing platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and Linkedin. Blogging on your personal site was deemed too tedious. You could instead build and grow an audience (if that was your purpose) through micro posts on social media platforms rather than lengthy blog posts. Collectively, the stream of micro-content on these platforms seemed enough to keep people engaged.

For content creators, the lack of a monetary ROI for blogging, compared with the time commitment of constantly cranking out lengthy articles, caused many to pull the plug and burn out (it was like a part-time job for 1/10 of minimum wage). The popularity of blogging plummeted, and as people took to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms, they abandoned RSS. The abandonment of RSS readers made it difficult for content from individual sites to appear on people’s radar. Nearly everyone had a presence on social platforms—the platforms allowed for communities to quickly form around common interests.

And then around 2016, when Trump was elected, there seemed to be a growing wake-up call about social media platforms. The platforms weren’t innocent but could foster extremism, conspiracy theories, and disinformation. Worse, someone could dominate the headlines day after day making outrageous statements, and that visibility, even if shocking, could lead to votes. Many wondered what these platforms were doing to society.

The algorithms of social platforms, optimizing for viewing time, amplified the extremist and other negative content to maximize clicks and ad revenue. As per the capitalist designs, social content became more toxic, polarizing, and full of disinformation. The algorithms exploited our negativity and novelty biases, all while collecting profile data to sell more advertising. The conversation about social content took more of a dark turn, as people started experiencing some of the ill effects of these platforms (negative body images, fragmented attention spans, conspiracy-mongering, political polarization, dopamine-based behaviorism, and more).

In a New York Times Magazine article about AI, Steven Johnson explains that in 2015, at the same time AI companies were forming (like OpenAI, which introduced ChatGPT) and digital assistants (like Alexa devices), another shift was occurring:

… during that same stretch of time, a seismic shift in public attitudes toward Big Tech was underway, with once-popular companies like Google or Facebook being criticized for their near-monopoly powers, their amplifying of conspiracy theories and their inexorable siphoning of our attention toward algorithmic feeds.

With the recent layoffs at many big tech companies, if you read the comment threads on these articles (for example, this one), many people cheered for these reductions. There was an attitude of resentment and revolt for the high-paid tech worker, and the value of their contributions weren’t celebrated as much as maligned as being surveillance/chokepoint machines.

This sentiment is partly why the recent emergence of image and language AI tools (ChatGPT, DALLE, Midjourney, and so on) fill people with an equal mix of wonder and dread. We’re not naive enough to swallow a techno-optimist use of these tools; their introduction will violate copyright, encourage homework cheating, proliferate spam and fake reviews, displace job roles, and more. At the same time, we’re curious to see what advanced artificial intelligence will bring about, and what opportunities these new tools might open up.

In this technological context, I was feeling caught up in a technoskeptic trend. Sitting in my chair for hours on end, indoors, I wondered about the tech writing career I’d chosen. I knew sitting all day was bad for my health, but beyond my stiffening and atrophying legs, it was hard to take this warning seriously. One day I decided to take an afternoon break, renting an e-scooter and riding it 15 minutes along the Burke-Gilman trail over to the University of Washington campus, to wander around the Suzzallo library (which looks cathedral-like).

Riding the e-scooter, I relished the cold wind on my face, being outside in the natural air as I looked at the Fremont waterways and enormous ships to my side, some carrying massive containers loaded by tall shipping cranes. When I approached the UW campus, the geofence of the e-scooter deactivated the acceleration, so I explored on foot.

Wandering in the Suzallo library, I observed that it was filled with students and designated as an extreme quiet zone. Oddly enough, the students weren’t reading books so much as working on laptops. The long open tables of students were surrounded by bookshelves with books that seemed only to be decoration.

After this outing, I decided to start walking more frequently, not just for exercise, but to get outside. For example, I started going on nature walks. I explored a patch of woods behind a train station I frequented but had never wandered around. While walking, I tried to look up and notice everything around me—a wooden birdhouse, the varieties of trees, old cement slabs with overgrown moss, a hidden pond, red and black berries of different shapes and textures. I used Google Lens to identify things. I tried to notice everything around me, as if seeing it for the first time. I became more curious and inquisitive. I was prisoner let out of his cell, allowed to wander about outside for the first time in years.

Walking more regularly outdoors

I soon explored other areas outside of nature. Under an overpass I’d driven 100+ times taking my daughter to soccer, I discovered a DIY skatepark, with curious stone artifacts that seemed like a postmodern art exhibit. I gazed through a remote tunnel that passed under the railroad tracks. I paced down unfamiliar roads near my house, walking through places I’d never been on before. I walked around distant housing developments under construction. I walked dirt tracks at school fields. I wandered, driven by the pull of the new and being outside.

Reading a book called Seattle Walks, I followed the author’s suggested walk along Alaskan Avenue to Post Alley and down to the original Seattle neighborhoods. I gazed at old brick buildings built at the turn of the century. I learned about Seattle’s restructuring of its coastline, the leveling of hills, and the widening of streets after the Great Fire in 1889. Reading the guidebook’s brief history brought the city blocks to life. What would have otherwise been an ordinary road took on added significance with the historical backstory. For example, Post Alley, which has been around since 1850 (around the time Seattle was founded), was originally a dirt road covered with wooden planks, featuring a single post office. Nearby was Seattle Steam—a pipe that still distributes steam for heat as an alternative (after the Great Fire) to combustible coal. The more details I observed, the more the surrounding environment pulled me in.

I also started reading a book called 52 Ways to Walk, by Annabel Streets. The book consists of short essays that describe ways to liven up walking, such as walking by a river, walking in early morning light, walking with a dog, walking in high altitudes, walking without a map, and so on. The author draws on many studies about the benefits of walking, from the microbiomes exuded by mud to the way the cold air creates a layer of protective, mitochondria-packed brown fat under your skin. One of my favorite chapters is “Walk Beside the Sea.” Streets writes:

What is it about the sea that makes us feel so good? According to Professor Dougless Kenrick, constant overstimulation and mental clutter sends our brains “into overdrive,” creating debilitating levels of stress. Our brains need recovery time, a chance to rest and replenish themselves. Or as Kenrick calls it, a period of “natural restoration.” We do this most effectively when exposed to environments with a little bit of interest and novelty but also with a high degree of statistical predictability, keeping us engaged but simultaneously relaxed…. Others think the ocean’s ebb and flow may contain the clue to its powerful mood-enhancing effects: namely that its pattern of continuous movement encourages our mind to move out of the vortex of its own thoughts. (128-129)

I could relate to this passage—I enjoyed walking next to water more than any other landscape. My favorite biking trail was to follow the winding Green River from Kent up to South Seattle. The constant flow of the river entranced and mesmerized me, making me another object pulled along its current.

Following Street’s advice, I walked along the Lake Union coastline from Gas Works park over to my work’s campus in Fremont, looking at the shipping vessels, docks, arcing bridges, and more—following the waterline. The random but predictable play of the water ripples and wind-whipped waves soothed my brain while simultaneously presenting me with the wonder of boats, docks, and seagulls.

With these positive experiences walking, I thought that walking could be my new hobby. And if I spent two hours a day outside, engaged in some physical activity, it might counter the constant indoor sitting in front of a screen. It might provide just the right balance to the life of a technology career. I kept this two-hour-a-day walking habit up for a couple of weeks.

Turning points

Despite the initial success in walking, I soon hit a snag. First, walking didn’t seem to do much for me physically. Despite the praised health benefits of walking, I didn’t feel my legs rejuvenated as before. The biomes in the mud didn’t seem to penetrate under my skin (or something). In fact, I started feeling metatarsal pain in the ball of my foot from a previous ligament injury.

But besides being unimpressed by the health benefits, I also found that walking was, as much as I hated to admit it, kind of boring after a while. Unless I put forth a lot of effort to walk someplace new, to learn about my surroundings, to use my curiosity to peel back the layers of detail, my mind inevitably gravitated to the podcast, audiobook, or TV show on my smartphone as I walked. Often, just to get the two hours in, I circled my block while watching TV shows on my phone.

Two hours was also taking a lot of time. Even during a winter break when I didn’t have other work, the limited daylight meant my walking excursion had to begin early. And if going into the city, shouldn’t I take a family member or two? My children weren’t nearly as excited as I was to learn about Seattle’s history (unless I could render it in a tourist-style narration). There was also the problem of driving to the city and back (and parking), which added to the time. It took a lot of work to make the walk interesting.

Further, each time I stopped to explore a curiosity, such as taking pictures with Google Lens and then browsing the search results, or pausing to read the descriptions in Seattle Walks book, or stopping to look at a birdhouse and figure out which birds might use it, it reduced the aerobic benefits of walking, leading me to feel less of a physical return for the time spent. Outside time, yes, and mentally clarifying, yes, but not aerobic time.

While hiking on Margaret’s Way in Issaquah with my wife, during an especially long stretch of the trail in which I felt ennui, an epiphany hit me: we’re drawn to tech because we find it interesting. We don’t have to search out history or look in guidebooks to decipher tree types or berries. Instead, we can open our phone or computer and see the latest information, trends, news, or issues in any niche we’re interested in. Yes, the content is often mediocre and low quality, but not always. Sometimes the content is multifaceted and thought-provoking. And we’re thinking beings.

A good walk with historical details and other newness could also be thought-provoking—don’t get me wrong. Especially if ruminating on ideas in a book or sorting out ideas in my head, the walk can provide clarity. But only to a point. After half an hour or so, I’m often done thinking and move toward entertainment.

This is why, as much as I might move away from screens, banishing my smartphones or rueing all the time spent in front of a computer, I come back to them. I want to know what’s happening, to read an author’s insights or perspectives, and more. Yes, the library and books can provide endless intellectual swimming. But it’s easier to open a screen to access the stream of information. In less than a second, the internet can present you with information that engages your mind in some way. It’s not all TikTok. You might be reading the New York Times Magazine, or the latest journal articles in your profession. This mental engagement has a magnetic pull on us, making it impossible to disengage from the screen for too long. The screen delivers an essential hit of information for our always-curious minds.

Nature and city walks can provide a much-needed respite from information overload, for sure, but if the respite is too long, like a vacation that goes on too long, my mind is ready to re-engage. The Internet provides us with something to contemplate. Because we are thinking beings, screens have a pull we can’t fight. As much as I wanted to dismiss smartphones from my life, or to ride the technoskeptic wave and say goodbye to a good many technologies I don’t need, I can’t fully do it. The Internet draws us in through our curiosity to learn and by the convenience of it all. What to learn? The issues surrounding AI. The controversies of tech leadership. The implications of quantum computing. The latest startup. This information is often more interesting than trees or city buildings. This is why my relationship with technology is so complicated: I love and resent technology at the same time. I’m pulled toward it as much as I push it away.

I often think back to Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, the book that persuaded me back to my smartphone. Kelly initially seems on the edge about technology but ultimately concludes that we embrace technology because of the opportunities it affords:

How can technology make a person better? Only in this way: by providing each person with chances. A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents he or she was born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a chance to be different from his or her parents, a chance to create something his or her own.

…The technium is necessary for human betterment. How else are we going to change? A special subset of humans will find the constrained choices available in, say, a monastery cell or the tiny opportunities in a hermit’s hut on the edge of a pond or in the deliberately restricted horizon of a wandering guru to be the ideal path to betterment. But most humans, at most moments in history, see the accumulating pile of possibilities in a rich civilization as something that makes them better people. That’s why we make civilization/technology. That’s why we have tools. They produce choices, including the choice for good. … We need the full spectrum of choices won by the technium to unleash our own maximum potential. (348)

He even includes text in the technium. This is a reference I had a hard time understanding. A book is a kind of technology, the invention of language combined with the printing press. The ability to manipulate thought through letters and words, and the technology of pen and pencil to transcribe that thought, is a form of technology. Technology gives rise to more opportunities. I might resent the screen, but it has afforded me countless hours of writing time, in which I’ve expanded my mind, found an easy way to organize and edit my thoughts, and composed meaningful stories.

Yet I still struggle with an internal fight about techno-skepticism. Am I a techno-optimist or a techno-skeptic? Cyber-utopian or cyber-dystopian? Is it possible to be both at the same time? What’s next in the cycle of the internet—after the honeymoon phase and the subsequent disillusionment, will we find a new peak to be optimistic about? Is there another cycle outside of optimism, skepticism, and disillusionment that we’ve yet to experience?

Whatever negatives it has, the Internet has the potential to be leveraged positively for nearly any project. The blog has allowed me to write this series, for example. What started out as a list of consecutive posts on a topic actually does hold up as a continuous longer work (after a good deal of editing). Given my full-time job and family responsibilities, I doubt I could carve the time required to write an entire book from scratch, spending 1-2 years in semi-isolation or waking at dawn each morning to work on a single long document. But I could write a post every week or two, and another one, and another. With each post, I gathered feedback from readers, who helped steer me in the right direction. I put one word in front of the other and continued on in this series, uncovering new ideas in books and articles that guided me to more posts.

Eventually, the posts found momentum and the series hit a level of substance that made the effort feel worthwhile. If nothing else, the project gave me a task to focus on, not too unlike Csikszentmihalyi’s emphasis on finding flow by immersing yourself in some activity. The blog allowed me to decouple a larger project into smaller chunks, and then gather feedback about each chunk. The feedback allowed me to constantly course correct, following an agile principle of regular user check-ins.

If blogging can be used to write longer works, and help people like me achieve their writing ambitions, the screen doesn’t have to be a waste of time. It does help provide opportunities that might not be fulfilled elsewhere. This is technology’s double-edged sword. I could have spent the same amount of time composing pointless tweets and scrolling TikTok videos, getting embroiled in troll-filled Reddit threads, but the same technology can also be used to write stories and expand the mind.

The applications of projects like this series extend far beyond writing projects. Any large project that you can chunk into small bites, and then gather feedback with each chunk through a reviewing audience, could benefit from a similar model. The genius of the Internet, at least for writing, is that it enables you to chunk lengthy projects into small bites.

Thoreau and Walking

Back to walking. I have not given up on walking. Reading Thoreau’s essay “Walking” inspired me to believe there’s something more fundamental to walking than I’d initially realized. Something that I felt under the skin but couldn’t quite articulate. Thoreau says when he goes out walking, he naturally tends to go west, which is his metaphor for a magnetic pull toward wildness:

… what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World….The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source.

… Life consists with wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him.

… Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.

Walking is how Thoreau connects with wildness, both the wildness in nature and himself. When he goes on walks, he doesn’t do so for aerobic exercise. Instead, he saunters, like a wandering middle-aged saint with “no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” When he looks around at shopkeepers and others sitting indoors, especially during the light of the day, it perplexes him. He feels restless if he doesn’t walk for four hours a day. Thoreau writes:

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them—as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon—I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

I, who cannot stay in my chamber for a single day without acquiring some rust, and when sometimes I have stolen forth for a walk at the eleventh hour, or four o’clock in the afternoon, too late to redeem the day, when the shades of night were already beginning to be mingled with the daylight, have felt as if I had committed some sin to be atoned for,—I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together. I know not what manner of stuff they are of—sitting there now at three o’clock in the afternoon, as if it were three o’clock in the morning.

Thoreau wrote “Walking” in 1851 and published it in 1862. The essay forms part of the transcendentalist movement that celebrated individualism and the divinity of nature over religion and machines. Through his essay, which Thoreau read as a lecture ten times (more than any other essay), he encourages immersion in the wildness of the outdoors, even to the point of abandoning your friends, family, and home as you go forth to saunter wherever you’re pulled to go. He sees walking/sauntering as a way to reunite with wildness, and be purified and uplifted by it. Some of his thinking, I assume, was spurred by the context of the industrial revolution, which had ushered in crowded cities, indoor living, and sedentariness.

Thoreau’s essay moved me. I connected with the wildness theme, but I admit that I also read much of the essay while sitting down on a commuter train taking me into the city. I understand the need for balance. Maybe not walking four hours a day, but certainly standing and walking outdoors as much as one sits in front of the screen.

References

Johnson, Steven. “A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?” The New York Times. 15 Apr 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/15/magazine/ai-language.html.

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. Penguin, 2011.

Krinock, Jeff and Matt Hoff. May I ask a Technical Question: Questions About Digital Reliability Each of Us Should Ask. 2016.

Streets, Annabel. 52 Ways to Walk: The Surprising Science of Walking for Wellness and Joy, One Week at a Time. Random House. 2022

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walking.” 2010 Cricket House Books edition. Originally published in The Atlantic in 1862.

Williams, David B. Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. University of Washington Press, 2017.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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