Analog Man: Going off the grid to gain sanity

by August 29, 2013

I spent two weeks this month as an analog, living much the way I did until the late 1990s. News came from reading the dead-trees editions of the Seattle Times and New York Times. “Social media” and “networking” entailed talking to people, writing notes on paper and making calls on that miracle of the 19th century, the telephone. I’ve never been much of a television viewer, allowing about an hour compared with the reported 34 hours per week of the average American. What on earth did I do? I read novels and works of history. Reflection, re-creation and the enjoyment of small daily moments were a priority.

reading a paper

This is not Jon Talton, but they’ve got the same idea. Photo: Florrie Bassingboum

In other words, I didn’t look at my three email accounts, much less answer anyone. No Twitter. No daily — or multiple times a day — reading an average of 12 newspaper sites and scores of public policy, business and economic sites. I did not darken the virtual door of the Federal Reserve or Talking Points Memo. Nor did I download a pdf or jpeg. If I wanted to check a fact, I used the books in my well-stocked reference stand. If you had a birthday during those two weeks, sorry I didn’t send you a Facebook greeting — I was AWOL.

The time held definite pleasures. Reading a newspaper all the way through at a leisurely beat — imagine! Books are always transporting. The near world was something more noticed. Even the act of making longhand notes was calming and clarifying. My system wasn’t jacked up the way it usually is, when an endless gantlet of deadlines and demands awaits, with the electronics commonplace to our lives and work acting as an accelerant. It was amazing to think that we used to live this way, and not so long ago. To be sure, there were deadlines, heavy work (at least at the newspapers where I served) and clerks handing you a bunch of pink “While You Were Out” slips.

I was not necessarily less informed. I was differently informed.

So…profound lessons? I am prepared to accept arguments that we run the risk of electronic culture warping our minds.  On the other hand, I appreciated more than ever the cornucopia of information and debate available at a keystroke. The convenience. The speed. A growing number of people who have no memory of a pre-digital age. No going back. On the other hand, the overused but apt term “time suck” is one practical danger (there are dangers to democracy and civilization that are beyond my pay grade here). Three days later and I still haven’t dug out of the emails — and this is triaging, not being careful to respond to everyone. I’m going to try to be more careful about walling off limited time for email, and Twitter, and… And I know, dear reader, that you are saying, “Good luck with that.”

Guy reading a book in deck chair

Books are good to get lost in. Also, not Jon Talton. Photo: Alan Cleaver

As journalists, we are more wired than average people. It’s a requirement. So, increasingly, is a presence on social media. There’s no way around it. But I would urge people to set limits. At the Dayton Daily News, the late Max Jennings as executive editor, required senior department heads to take off an afternoon a week and just sit with a yellow legal pad. Going, as usual, mach 5 with my hair on fire, I thought this was madness. I had so much to do! And this was when the closest one got to a computer, aside from the “dead” Atex writing/editing terminal, was a Mac in the art department or the university mainframe we used for a major investigative series.  Now I understand Max’s wisdom. The idea was to unclutter your mind, slow down enough to let the ideas and, yes, inspirations flow. I recommend it.

As business journalists, the Internet and proliferation of devices raise the stakes. People may casually dismiss you with “my kids don’t read newspapers.” But, as I always reply, “The young people who will be telling your children what to do, whether they will get hired and what society they will live in do read…quality journalism, whether online or on dead trees.” We provide intelligence to business readers who are more demanding than ever, and have more options, too. So we must stay at the top of our game, rather than being dragged along, irrelevant. Like Neo in The Matrix, we must use the grid but not be plugged in as “food.” We use the grid as a tool for our timeless calling to serve the public trust and ensure transparency and accountability. Allow me one more sci-fi allusion: Only aging Battlestar Galactica survives because Admiral Adama refuses to allow it to be networked to the colonial fleet — which is destroyed because the Cylons use its hyper-connectivity to destroy the other ships.

And don’t forget: There are plenty of people, mostly older to be sure but they have the money, who rely on that one, or maybe two, print newspapers a day. They tend to be avid business readers. If, that is, we give them something worth reading.