Walk vs. Hike
Sunday evening, fighting through a stupefied daze of jet lag, powered by half a gallon of cold brew coffee — a glass of which I sipped at the podium like bourbon — I gave the opening keynote to the Yale Publishing Course for the ninth time. I spoke for ninety minutes, mainly about who I perceive to be our “adversaries” in publishing, and ended with a breakdown of my recent big walk, the SMS experiment, and, most relevantly, the single book that came out of it all.
It felt good to tie the walk into the talk, to mix theory and praxis. In my talk I espoused the need for books today as totems of attention control, but more importantly, as objects with which the contract between user and media is clear. You buy a book, you know what you’re getting. There is no other “business model” at play. No other information being (necessarily, relatively) sold. This clarity of contract is especially lucid in physical form. The book has edges. The transaction has edges. The transaction completes. Given time, you complete the book. It has an ending. Contracts are clear. Usually, there’s no tracking.
To talk about the “tiny loops” of social media or “focus” or “attention control” in purely theoretical terms doesn’t carry much weight. I believe boots-on-the-ground perspective is, if not non-negotiable, helpful. Go get addicted to Clash of Clans and then write about it. (Please don’t go get addicted to Clash of Clans.) And so in service to praxis, I recognized once again how grateful I am to have gone on my walk this past April and May, and to have done so not in a throwaway manner, but with serious intention, treating it like a platform for exploring all of the above. And how grateful I am for the conversations with Josh Miller that led to the SMS experiment.
That experiment continues to resonate as an archetype of how the network can be positively leveraged. How the network can expand an experience, make it more accessible, if only on the periphery. How you can mitigate, if not entirely eliminate, the downside we tend to associate with social networks today. Because: The SMS tool let me walk and only walk. I wasn’t pulled from the walk. And the responses from one day didn’t bleed over and sit in my skull the next. Day after day, the walk was the walk was the walk.
I’m enjoying Jenny Odell’s How to do Nothing. She describes her book as:
A field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy.
This, too, is a walk, but only a walk done in a certain way. A walk disconnected, not placed on Instagram Stories, not live-tweeted. A walk for the sake of a walk, in the guise of a walk, under the stars of a walk-shaped constellation.
After my Yale talk, I walked back to our hotel in New Haven with some attendees. One asked: Why “walk?” Why that word? Why not hike?
I suppose technical definition separates the two. Walks are what you might do in your average suburban neighborhood. Hikes, in the mountains. But “walk” is chosen deliberately, meant to be inclusive. By even just using the word “hike,” folks drop off: Not young enough, not strong enough, not ready for the bugs. You can trick a person into hiking by calling it a walk. I’ve done so many times. And “walk” denotes a thing to be easily grabbed. A walk is there to be taken.
Also, there is the contract. I would describe the contract of a “walk” as relatively clear. One foot after another. You leave your home, you walk along the Brooklyn Bridge, you eat some pizza; a walk thus completed. “Hike” is perhaps more fuzzy, the breadth of potential much wider — embark on a hike without double checking and you may end up on the summit of Kilimanjaro or in Berkeley Hills or eating apple pie on Pike’s Peak. On my long walk a man gave me frozen bacon on a mountain pass. But even there, even then, it never felt like a hike. I was walking, the day was bounded, a few more steps and I’d be heading down the other side, and few more steps after that, would be at my inn for the night. The contracts were clear, the bacon cool against my knee.
As for now: The sun is shining and the jet lag still weighing heavy. So, a walk it is, down by the ocean and then back, as I prep for my NYC talk next week.
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“A happy, American/half-japanese, military brat torn from a transient life to live in a small town in Kentucky at 13 years of age. After moving a total of 15 different and distinct locations, finally settled in Georgia and consider myself a Southerner above all else.“
“Torn from Russia to America, from city to suburb. As a kid with little control over my life, I explored entirely inwards. Come of age, I set off to backpack and then turned my focus nearly completely to the outside world. An adult now, I’m looking for the balance between the two. “
“As a teenager, I spent nearly every summer evening walking daily around the suburban subdivision where my parents lived, listening to echoes of children playing, mowers, trimmers, and trucks cutting through carefully groomed lawns, sprinklers pitching up in frequency. I walked in circles, a set path, the crook of pavement familiar. It was a ritual that granted me the grace to tear away from the monotony, an aspirational whiteness that this diaspora kid could never quite (and never will) conform to.”
(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)