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Journal Entry

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Technogourmet's Manifesto

The company I work for is upgrading our cell phones, and they have given me an iPhone. It sits in a box on my desk. I am scurrying now to find out how to disable the internet on an iPhone (this may work).

I do not want any apps. I do not want to play Angry Birds. I do not want Twitter in my pocket. I want a cell phone which makes telephone calls and sends SMSses, and nothing else. I don't mind if it has a slick iOS interface for doing this, and there are probably some iPhone functions -- video and sound recording, perhaps -- that I won't mind. But the internet? That is right out.

This makes me sound like a technophobe.

On the other hand:

Most writers I know probably hand-code the bibliography page on their websites. Not me -- I wrote my own XSD describing an XML taxonomy of works, publications, reprints, venues, languages and translations, a XUI to generate a GUI to edit it in, and an XSL to transform it into this HTML. When I finish writing for the day, I run a Perl script of my own invention which counts words, reckons the total net increase and decrease, and writes statistics to a running log.

This makes me sound like a technophile.

As I've written before, in the 1990s I used a Palm PDA to organize my life. By careful steps of performance analysis, process improvement, and re-analysis, I have progressed to using a paper Moleskine and a binder-clip wallet.

I am not a technophobe; nor am I a technophile. I am a technogourmet.

In the movie Ratatouille, the young up-and-coming chef, Linguini, spars with with the formidable food critic Anton Ego:

Linguini: You're Anton Ego.
Anton Ego: [chuckles] You're slow for someone in the fast lane.
Linguini: And you're thin for someone who likes food.
[crowd gasps]
Anton Ego: I don't LIKE food. I LOVE it. If I don't love it, I don't SWALLOW.

That's me. I love technology. And if I don't love it, I don't swallow.

I asked for help, on Facebook, with this business of disabling internet on the iPhone. This occasioned a certain degree of hilarity among my intimates -- a hilarity which I encouraged. It is of course absurd to dumb down a hugely internet-centric portable device into a phone; as my old friend Elizabeth Mitchell said, it is like buying a car only to listen to its radio.

It is funny. But there's a little more to it than that. There is, in this day and age, something quirky and idiosyncratic about not wanting more -- more power, more bandwidth, more connectivity, more convenience. Not wanting to be always online, not wanting to have email and Facebook and blogs and YouTube and the news and Wikipedia constantly at your fingertips, when you are having breakfast with your children, or sitting on the sofa jamming with them on guitar and ukelele and clarinet, or walking across the medieval bridges of the old city in the evening on a date with your wife, or browsing in a bookstore, or trying desperately to come up with the right order of clauses in a sentence you've rewritten six times. Wanting to do all those things in peaceful netless silence, away from the hysteria of the world-mind, is already, in 2011, mildly subversive. And not wanting to be able to be online at these times -- not wanting to even have to make a conscious decision to turn the internet off -- that is even odder.

Here's the thing. If I won a car in a raffle, and there was a free parking space outside my apartment, and it was legal to do so? I would perhaps park the car, remove the engine and sell it, and use the car as an extra room. Overflow books and kitchen appliances in the trunk. A comfy place to listen to the radio. But to drive? No way.

I have had cars. I know what happens. When I have a car, I drive it. Biking becomes a luxury, a choice, another activity to try and make time for, to do occasionally and feel virtuous about. So I get out of shape. I spend time sitting, stressed out, in traffic. I go places that are farther away, because I can. I time things more closely, hoping to beat traffic, and then I'm late. I dress assuming air conditioning and a heater, instead of dressing for the weather, and get colds. When all I own is a bicycle, am automatically fitter, healthier, more reliable, tougher, and mellower, without any extra exertion of willpower. In a very literal sense, owning a car makes me a worse person.

Our selves are not merely epiphenomena of neuronal connections. We are not just made of meat. We are made of lots of other things: social fabrics, societal expectations, physical reminders of habits, and, most relevantly here, tools.

We are our tools. We hope to be judged by the contents of our characters; but our characters are not fixed and static natures. Our characters are constituted by our actions, our daily choices; and our choices are constrained, influenced, and often determined by our available tools. In choosing our tools we choose, in part, who we want to be.

If a technology is making you better -- better at being who you want to be -- use it, swallow it, become it. If it is making you worse, spit it out.

Posted by benrosen at April 20, 2011 03:53 PM | Up to blog

This is my new favorite post in your entire blog. It's exactly why I don't have a car, don't have a TV, don't want an iPad, remove freebies from my Coop@Home basket, and often leave my phone at home when going outside... But I am a gourmet when it comes to browsing the web on my train commute.

Posted by: Rahel L├╝thy at April 20, 2011 05:01 PM

Great piece! If I had an iPhone (or an Android) I know I'd leave the internet on despite the temptation that would bring, but I can totally get behind your idea here. Good luck with it.

Posted by: Haig Evans-Kavaldjian at April 20, 2011 05:41 PM

My sentiments EXACTLY. Despite the fact that I don't own a TV, I still manage to veg out to a plethora of television programs on my computer. I always go into the phone store saying I want a phone that acts like a phone. I do not own a bike, but hope to, but I definitely, definitely do not own a car. Go BEN! Good luck!

Posted by: Kiini at April 20, 2011 07:32 PM

Some of your choices are possible largely because you live in a small city in Switzerland which has a bike culture and convenient public transportation. These choices are more difficult in suburban America, as you know. But I love the concept. Right on!

Do you have a Facebook page? That seems odd.

Posted by: Mom at April 20, 2011 08:24 PM

What you say of my local context, Mom, is very true -- but that's part of the point -- technogourmets optimize for their highly particular situation (and taste), and thus come to widely different approaches (Rahel's choice to have an internet-enabled iPhone is made in precisely the same technogourmet spirit as my choice not to have one). YMMV, as they say in netland.

I do have a Facebook page, and I do not have Twitter. At first glance this seems odd; Twitter is all about the word, and about conciseness; it is hip and radical; it is where authors hang out. Facebook is colorful and populist and, in comparison, lowbrow.

But that is precisely why I am on Facebook and not Twitter. I would like Twitter way too much -- and spend way too much time on it.

Facebook, on the other hand, provides something Twitter cannot -- a highly efficient mechanism for finding old friends and acquaintances who are, precisely, not literati and don't have their own blogs and feeds and platforms. It's precisely because Facebook is, AOL-like, "for the rest of us" that I find it useful. A secondary use is that FB's algorithms are pretty good at figuring out a pageful of stuff friends have said (and liked, and so on) in the last 24 hours, that I might want to know about... and only a pageful. Facebook's draconian selectivity about what it shows you, which many decry, is for me a core benefit.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 21, 2011 11:07 AM

Completely awesome.

Posted by: Kate Bachus at April 21, 2011 02:36 PM

I have a car, but I hate driving so much (especially in Sydney) that I cycle almost everywhere anyway.
I completely understand your "don't give me the opportunity and I don't need the willpower", but I happen to need a car to lug my cello around, so I just have it, spend too much money on it, and use it minimally.

On the other hand, I can't imagine not having at least one device connected to the internet at all times :) Once I determine that it is really making me a worse person, though, I will say to myself "That Benjamin Rosenbaum was right all along - and I do not resent that fact".

For now, you are right, for you, and I take your last paragraph to heart and shall continue being me. To the extent that I am able.

Posted by: Peter Hollo at April 21, 2011 05:13 PM

Great post! Amen to resisting the technology suck. I don't have a smartphone either. When I upgraded my cell phone I did get a QWERTY keyboard because be able to send a text means less time I have to spend on the phone. Thank goodness for the internet, because it lets me work from home and prioritize being with my family, but when I'm done I turn it off and often don't look at it again that day. I only use Facebook when one of my friends who uses it instead of email nowadays sends me a message there. No cable=no TV reception=the TV is only used for videos and therefore rarely on (even though I have a sports fan husband, who thankfully can get his sports fix from the newspaper and the internet, and not impose it on the rest of us), and no commercials to boot. I like having a car because of the freedom it affords (like being able to send my children to an excellent public charter school in a less homogeneous part of town) but also like living in a neighborhood where I don't need it most of the time and can walk or bike to do errands/visit friends/get down into the woods and down to the river. I will happily pay more to shop at a neighborhood store I can walk to than have to drive somewhere; hopefully my business will help keep the store around. It's all about making more conscious choices about how you want to live and the world you want to help create.

Posted by: Shoshana Rosenbaum at April 22, 2011 03:16 PM

I don't have a smart phone. I have an old flip phone, so perhaps I know nothing and my advice is stupid, but I'm assuming that if you can load applications, you can also delete them, right? So, delete all the apps that you don't want on your phone and do not load the apps that you don't want on your phone and leave the phone part and maybe the picture taking part, because that part is old-school phone technology, right?

It could be that simple, right?

Posted by: glynda at April 25, 2011 12:12 PM

Um... I did have an android for work for just over a week and I loved it and it loved me and now I want one. :-) I put a cute pink Hello Kitty picture on the front page and, had it been mine, I would have purchased a pink case for it.

I do, however, think that it might be a good thing that I cannot afford one.

Except for that one app that knows where you are standing and will show you the night sky that you are looking at and tell you which each constellation is. That would be really super awesome to have, because I have tried to learn this information in other ways and failed, but I think that this app way of learning constellations would work for me. I really covet that app...

Posted by: glynda cotton at April 25, 2011 12:16 PM

Hi Glynduschka! Yes, deleting apps is on my list of things to try, just after parental controls (which in this case would be for controlling the parent). I want that constellation app too!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 25, 2011 01:08 PM

Peter, yes, exactly: my point here is not that everyone should avoid the internet -- a highly ironic point to make on a blog in any case. My point is precisely that everyone should craft a specific solution for themselves, and think about what tools they want around. Technogourmets will have far more diverse and unpredictable portfolios of available tools than either -philes or -phobes!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 25, 2011 01:11 PM

Hi Ben,

I have to say, your timing on this is perfect--last week for my online technology course we needed to each find an article related to technology in the school library (or that could be applied to the school library even if it was written more generally), so I was able to share this blog entry. (Thanks! ;)

While my professor agreed this was a good match for the kinds of things we'd been talking about in the course--she particularly liked the definition of "gourmet" as "A connoisseur of good food; a person with a discerning palate," and this entry as a reminder that we as school librarians need to have "discerning palates" when it comes to technology and when/how to use it--she did have one question that I wanted to pass along. She said that she too is a "most recent" person when it comes to Facebook, and she "totally understand[s] that behavior/desire/need," but she wondered if it was possible getting "hooked" on Twitter would not be a bad thing for you and if it was simply that you hadn't found a good reason to get hooked on Twitter, a purpose you could put it to so that that hooking would be constructive.

To add some additional context/specifics to her question, I know my professor uses Twitter pretty much exclusively as a source of news/professional information, while it seemed to me that you were viewing it here as strictly a social networking tool. I wondered if that was because that's just how it's been presented to you/referred to in your life (I know that's how I thought of it until I started using it for class, and I still primarily use it for, well, my own amusement); or if that's not where the news/professional info for your chosen fields *is* (and if that's the case, what sources do you go to/follow for those kinds of information?); or if it really was strictly a matter of only having so much time and only being able to do so many things; or something else I haven't thought of...?

Posted by: Emily Gilman at April 25, 2011 04:37 PM

Hi Emily!

Glad to hear that the post was useful. I think that the issue here is that with any tool, there's a certain time analysis involved. How much of your use of it replace -- possibly more efficiently or at higher quality -- things you already do in different ways? And how much will your use of it be additional -- time you wouldn't have spent doing that kind of activity, if it weren't for that tool? And in the latter case, what is it then displacing from your life, and what are the relative benefits gained from the tool, versus from the activities thus lost?

And the other issue here is to follow the Oracle of Delphi's prescription, "know thyself"; the great enemy of efficiency and satsifaction is self-deceit. You're interested in optimizing your toolset based on who you actually are, your real talents and deficits, not who you'd like to kid yourself that you are.

When I say I'd like Twitter too much, I mean precisely that. Far more than Facebook, Twitter is designed to appeal to people like me. It's all very well and good to say that the best use of Twitter for me might be newsgathering rather than socializing; I can only respond with hollow laughter. That would be much like my resolve to bike to get the groceries when I own a car. Or the idea that I could own a TV, but only turn it on when there's company over for "social watching".

A constant, twenty-four-hour a day feed of quips, links, banter and philosophizing by my most literarily inclined, online-witty friends? Unfiltered by algorithm, simply present in its entirety, with sophisticated evolving rituals of metacomment and interconnection? The idea that that would simply replace some existing mechanism for gathering professional information, without expanding the amount of time I spend playing online, is, I am sorry to say, an illusion!

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at April 25, 2011 05:27 PM
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