Time shift: why I walk to work, listen to records and carry a camera

I’ve just pulled out my vinyl copy of Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland — which I purchased in 1986 (“every generation throws a hero up the pop charts”). Over two decades later, I’ve begun spinning it again. It sounds great. I guess the teenage me took pretty good care of this fragile analog media. I know you’re thinking this hipster doofus digital guy is harboring some misguided nostalgia as a cool, contrarian way to stand out.

I too have wondered why I have re-embraced a medium I was only too happy to dump in the late 80’s for all of its physical imperfections and inconveniences. I’ve digitized around 1,200 of my CD’s, I purchase high-resolution SACD’s, DVD-A’s and Blu-Ray audio, and I subscribe to the Mog audio streaming service. It was my colleague, Mac Parks (who collects both vinyl and CD’s) who helped me put my finger on the reason: it’s the deliberate physicality of the action of listening. Here’s how he expressed it in a recent e-mail:

Giving one’s attention fully to music (or any art form, for that matter) is one of the great luxuries life has to offer in my view. It helps me have a more deeply emotional response to the music.

Indeed, as I’ve been teaching this fall, I’ve been using records to help me grade the shorter papers. To avoid distraction and to provide a creative constraint, I give myself one side of a record to evaluate each submission (around 14-20 minutes). Then I need to get up, turn the record over and start all over again with another paper. So although the music may be serving as background audio, it’s also forcing me to define my use of time, which can be a challenge these days in limitless, commoditized, always available, always-there-to-distract, media.

In a desire to associate my choice of media with a need to take the time to contemplate, I’ve taken two other significant steps:

(1) I’m walking to campus (52 minutes) when possible. Usually, I bike, but it’s too short of a commute. It makes my day too intense because I know that I can run a tight schedule and get to work and home quickly. But there’s no room to breathe. And I don’t get to listen to music, or more often than not, to audiobooks. I’m presently listening to Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Of course, I got the Kindle/Audible two-fer, which allows me to switch between the two seamlessly without losing my place. So I’m still taking advantage of digital conveniences.

December in the University of Washington's Red Square
December in the University of Washington’s Red Square

(2) I’ve finally configured a compact backpack (a Lowepro DSLR Video Fastpack 150 AW) in which I can carry all my latest content-gathering devices: Olympus Micro FourThirds camera, lenses, extra batteries, shotgun mic, digital audio recorder, tablet or ultrabook, Leatherman tool. Yup, with the exception of the utility knife, all of those devices can easily be compressed into a smartphone (in this case, my excellent Galaxy Note II). But I don’t want to create a lot of content with the ease of a smartphone; I want to create good content. And I always want to be “loaded for bear” — ready to shoot, create, produce.

If indeed the mobile-first era’s premise is that the best camera is the one you have with you (i.e. a smartphone), then I always want a camera that requires me to make some physical adjustments to the image, enjoy using great “glass” (such as my Leica lens) and take a little more effort to upload the image if I decide to share it (such as pictures I took at a tribute to Jimi Hendrix at the Experience Music Project last month).

A tribute to Hendrix, that's Billy Cox on bass
A tribute to Hendrix, that’s Billy Cox on bass

In this respect, Facebook’s new Photo Sync functionality appalls me. Background uploads of every photograph from my smartphone is too much content; and too much data to make available to a murky platform like Facebook. I don’t want less friction when it comes to my media production and sharing; I want more: for the sake of the quality of my content, as well as my control over its ownership.

My attempt to harness time is of course, akin to sticking my finger in the dyke holding back the North Sea. But even as all these digital devices and platforms have so compressed time (along with the hyper-competitiveness of a globalized economy), I have come to believe that our overwhelming stress is also due to this confusing, chaotic period of transition.

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing astrophysicist Adam Frank for a KCTS/Pacific Science Center Science Cafe. He ties humanity’s conception of time with our view of the heavens (cosmology) as well as whatever technology is available to us during that period. So our “Time-Logic” during the Agrian Age was a relationship between the location of the sun, the seasons and the harvest. In the Industrial Age, we developed the clock even as we conceived of a “clockwork universe” and begin to ascribe a monetary value to time (paying workers on the production line). Suddenly, “9:05 a.m.” exists. It didn’t before the invention of the mechanical clock.

Adam and I were so taken with our ability to speak each other’s language that we now have breakfast every time he comes to town (I walked to the Portage Bay Cafe today to see him and arrived at 8:02).

And now, here we are with the Digital Revolution and multiverse theory, where we are loosed from the bonds of location, scheduling and getting paid for our time (time shift DVR’s anyone? using our “cognitive surplus” to blog for free; education advancement tied to achievement, like a video game, instead of how old we are). And yet, as Adam observes:

Rather than giving us a new time, our Facebooked, GPS-mapped, mobile-connected lives appear to be lashed ever more tightly to the rigid industrial time-logic of our grandparents world…

The trick is to move beyond time slavery and become, instead, a time-bender.

What does it mean to be a time-bender? It begins by recognizing that the creation of new human times is a creative act. It means using whatever opportunities our lives afford (limited as they may be) to opt out of the old time-logic and create a new one.

In practice, time bending might mean using new technologies to soften the rigid time we have been taught to believe is real. Maybe the next time you make an appointment with a friend, keep it fuzzy. See what “around 6 p.m.” feels like since you both will have cell phones and can find each other when you need to. To the degree that your schedule has any flexibility, maybe time bending means surfing your natural periods of concentration, working when you are sharpest, even if it’s at 11 p.m., and going down when your attention dims.

Beyond technology, time-bending means willfully stepping back from the imagined urgencies your culture handed you. How many activities does your child need to be part of? Can you cancel just one appointment next week? How about leaving early enough for an appointment that you have time to hang around and just wait? How about keeping some version of a Sabbath — a day where you don’t buy anything or drive anywhere or accomplish any damn thing? Finally, and most important, how about just slowing down?

Should we adopt Adam’s theory that our Time-Logic is about to change yet again, perhaps to something more fuzzy and creative, then we may be facing a fundamental disruption to our institutions — far more significant than what we’ve experienced over the last decade with the rise of the web. I raised this idea in class a few weeks ago when I listed Technology’s “3 stages” of societal change from one of our readings (Howard Rheingold’s 2012 book, Net Smart), and applied it to cellphones.

1. Substitution: Wireless technology allows us to carry our phones with us and make calls almost anywhere. This makes our lives more efficient.

2. Enlargement: Access to data on our smart devices allows us to engage in computer-based activities that were previously limited to office and home. This increases the volume and complexity of the tasks that we can complete.

3. Reconfiguration: The “Internet of Things” with sensors embedded in fridges, shoes, toothbrushes always connected to our personal mainframes fundamentally changes the nature of our world as we rewire our behavior, and in turn, how we perceive and use our personal time.

Slowing down with the kids in the kitchen
Slowing down with the kids in the kitchen

So maybe my vinyl reawakening is an appreciation of Adam Frank’s emerging Time-Logic. Conversely, I recently picked up an original pressing of The Who’s 1971 classic album Who’s Next from our neighborhood used record store. That same day, AT&T had loaned me the new Nokia 920 Windows Phone. When I got home, I was eager to listen to the record and sip some scotch. But to placate my two year-old son Hendrix so that I could take this time, I handed him the new smartphone. One hundred and twenty seconds later, I heard “Baba O’Riley” playing both from my stereo, and from the yellow handset (“Teenage wasteland!”). Somehow, he had put the phone into listening mode and it determined what I was playing, thereby locating the digital file somewhere in the cloud. A timeless classic now hung somewhere in the heavens, accessible to a touch-savvy, fleet-fingered generation.


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