A long walk and how apps suck us in and never let us go
Rodenians far and near, unseen and unheard —
I’m Craig Mod. You, in theory, subscribed to this newsletter. You can always one-click unsubscribe at the bottom of this mail. Today’s letter is a post-mortem on the long walk I recently completed. It references my recent WIRED piece about that very walk. For those looking for notes on cameras or photography — apologies, bupkis this month.
And with that, here’s a trillion words:
The walk is done. Didn’t die. Wasn’t mauled by a bear. Pit viper close calls but bite free. No arrests. No drug trafficking. I did escape from one inn in Saitama in the middle of the night because the fleas were many and the air-flow bad and the tatami actually from the Edo period. Another old inn abutting a love hotel, on a plateau overlooking a golf course, near the bloody battlefield of Sekigahara? I didn’t escape that one. The tatami were covered in cigarette burns and the room smelled entirely of an ashtray. Sitting in it was like sitting in a sauna of burning tobacco. The stink fully permeated anything that touched the air. I opened the windows facing the love hotel to no discernible effect. The area around my private toilet was dark and swampy and moldy, forever soaked with water from a leaky pipe. I happily peed in the rusted sink. In the morning the proprietress offered me some miso soup. Just miso soup. But I was in such a jag to get out of there I turned her down. Wait! She yelled and ran into a back room. I think she felt badly about the room, but also about having given up on the place. It was done, like many of the inns I stayed at. She was old, her partner was dead, and the place was falling apart. She returned with a sports drink and a souvenir bottle opener. We bowed and said goodbye. She was wonderful.
The walk just kind of ended, one day. I wrote about the un-ending, the unresolved nature of it, over on Ridgeline:
Hell, I’m still processing the entire trip, and suspect I’ll be processing it for a long time coming. It was remarkable. I am grateful to have been able to walk for these past 43 days. I could walk for 43 more (so easily, just go, zero effort) but feel like I am so utterly full of learning from the road that I need to stop and, you know, synthesize or combobulate the heck out of it all.
And so I write today to combobulate in our little nook of the ’net.
The past week I was maxed out helping a buddy put some things together in Tokyo. Yes, the walk ended almost two weeks ago, but today is one of the first days of true, total, sitting-on-my-rump I’ve had in months. I figure it’s worth getting down some thoughts — however spicy, however rehashed — on how reentry feels after forty-three days off-ish the internet.
It begins in the gut, a kind of clenching of the intestine, a warmth below the belly button. Then, a radiating of heat from the chest. A sensation of being pulled forward. A tensing of the face, around the eyes, the middle of the brow. The breath gets oddly shallow, a mild hyperventilation. Something fires off in the back of the skull, and then again. No conscious complicity, all autonomous, micro-stimulations. Triggered by: A scroll, a reload, a pull to refresh, a like, a share, the right headline. I can now pinpoint this sequence of involuntary response to be the tiny physiological loop my body runs through when using Twitter or Instagram.
There are variants — moral outrage or indignation trigger lesser or greater versions of the above. There’s the nearly hypoxic nature of breaking news to be consumed all in one, endless gulp, the news itself becoming the only source of oxygen in the universe. Apple announced a bunch of stuff, and one feels the loop widen for a second to maximally guzzle, over and over again: the strange hot takes, the quips, the jokes. Apparently the price of a monitor stand is the new anti-Christ.
There’s a Straight Pride Parade brewing in Boston. I saw a tweet. I wish I hadn’t. A friend was explaining why there is a Gay Pride Parade. He was thoughtful, metered. It had thousands of likes. It had gone viral. It was spreading a message of hope and inclusivity. I clicked the tweet. Dumb dumb. Basic ’net folly 101. Never click the tweet. I wish I could unsee the responses. Nobody is online to willfully have their mind changed. Twitter is not engineered for nuance or meaningful social dialogue (and I doubt it ever will be).
Each time you load Instagram it’s entirely different. A place with no concept of time or continuity. It’s like being stuck at the bottom of a well with oil slicked walls. There is no end. No edge. No rhyme or reason to the order. Just keep scrambling up the stone walls like a squirrel. Try as you might, you’re forever down in the wet darkness of that infinitude of sweet, sweet content.
Strong net connection burbling up above, smartphone in hand, put the right apps on the thing and we are all Odysseuses. Except we didn’t strap ourselves to the mast of our ship, we walked straight up to those beautiful singing bird-women and handcuffed ourselves to Thelxinoe’s silken leg.
That’s my hot take on coming back online.
My long, largely solo-walk didn’t “teach” me anything explicitly. But it did reset the baseline — physically and chemically — of my relationship with certain technologies, making it much easier to acutely feel just what happens when a brain plugs into YouTube or a stew of hot headlines. Three days won’t get you very far. But six weeks? Six weeks and things become more stark.
The overview effect is a nice analogy because it describes an experience that amplifies the obvious. This is all obvious. Dumb dumb obvious. Basic ’net folly 101. Because: We all know this. Smoking a carton of cigarettes is bad, a diet of only sugar is bad, starting every day by smoking crack is, probably, bad. Plugging our heads into the profit-driven nodes of a network from morning to night? Also, it seems, bad.
But what is “bad?”
In the case of networked badness I consider “bad” to be design patterns that subvert impulse control. Anything that obviates agency over one’s attention. Bad is being manipulated by an algorithm in favor of the company over the human.
Bad is being stuck in a “tiny loop” of the mind and body — a senseless series of actions that span minutes, hours, days, consume years, and add up to nothing or almost nothing, and that benefit (ideally: tranquility, growth, curiosity) no one but the company (in reality: engagement, ad views) who owns the container in which the loop takes place.
To be a bit reductive, for example: Bad is Tinder getting you addicted to the pseudo-pornography of hundreds or thousands of potential mates, the high of a “match,” as opposed to helping you find, and sustain, a meaningful relationship. There’s a business model in helping you find true love, but it doesn’t have the same growth curve as making you think you can hump half of Manhattan.
My recent WIRED article is, sure, about the walk itself, but the walk was just a framework to talk about technology, attention, networks, self-improvement, habit, ritual, and feeling like a human.
During my walk I wanted to broadcast in semi-real-time (daily?). But I feared the impact of using most available apps:
I could use a tool like Instagram to approximate this, but I’d have to fight with its algorithm and avoid looking at the timeline. I am not superhuman. I would look at the notifications, the likes, and comments. Reply to them. Become intoxicated by the chemicals released by the tiny loops. Invariably this process would make me think about that audience and how they would react to the next text and photo. I would have lost the purity of the experience. And yet, with global network connectivity, there’s no reason to not also broadcast, in part, in real time.
This was the general crux of my tech conundrum in the rice paddies of Japan: Tech is not inherently evil — the basic infrastructure is extremely useful — but many consumer systems built atop it are sub-optimized for our own interests.
In the end, I used a special SMS tool built by friends to try and resolve this tension.
Now that’s it’s all done and I have perspective: The SMS tool was fantastic. Perfect, I’d say. It’s precisely what I needed to stay honest during the walk. Honest in the sense of keeping focused, disciplined. It was a forcing function to import, cull, edit, and choose an image each day. It made me take a minute or thirty and really think about how the day felt. But it never pulled me out of the moments of the day itself, the walk. It allowed me to share the experiences with hundreds or thousands of other people (I still haven’t seen the subscriber list) in semi-realtime, and in the next week or two, when the physical book of responses arrives, I look forward to reliving the walk once again in the presence of the voices of those who followed along.
Another important note:
Both the SMS and podcast publishing systems are “open” systems, with no single controlling entity like a Facebook or Twitter. And they are “quiet” systems, in that production and consumption spaces are separated. You don’t have to enter a timeline of consumption in order to produce.
I love everything about the loops that this tool produced: big, loping, floppy loops, spanning weeks and months. True or not, these feel like the loops that form the bones of bigger works. The smallness of the loops of tweets do not evoke this feeling at all.
I find this “tiny loop” test to be a good heuristic for determining if an app or website is helpful or harmful. (A bonus corollary: An app or website without tiny loops is often a tool that respects and aids the user, and is confident enough in its utility to avoid dark patterns.)
Using that heuristic, I chopped off access to a lot of apps and websites on my phone and laptop for the duration of the walk. For example, here’s what’s left on my iPhone:
Whatsapp/Messenger/Messages. Most messaging apps don’t invoke the tiny loop issue for me because I have notifications turned off, and there are no gamification mechanics to them. Conversely: Snapchat and its streaks seems fraught with an unnecessary tension that benefits nobody but Snapchat.
Google Maps (which makes a big appearance in my WIRED piece) is also loop free, although they are trying to make it more loopy. Thankfully, they’re failing to do so. But Google Maps is now so laden with extras — user generated content hooks, one-too-many-modes — that don’t add up to much, that I did the unthinkable the other day: I reinstalled Apple Maps. It’s better! But it’s still very bad for most of Japan.
Email, is loop free for me. I know it’s not for most, and that for many it’s an archetypical pit of techno-despair. But email feels like something I have control over. Again: No notifications. It appears when I need it and connects me in positive ways with folks around the world. I suppose I’ve shed any feeling of duty to respond to all inbound. It took me years to cultivate that. I read everything. And I say thank you in my head to everyone. But, try as I might, I can’t hit reply on all of it.
Safari technically works but I’ve hobbled it so greatly that it’s only good for Googling facts and Wikipedia.
Antithetically: Youtube can be helpful, can foster bigger-than-of-this-moment loops, but it requires Herculean effort to resists their Tiny Loop Sirens. In fact, does this exist? A subset of YouTube that’s curated, and contains only the best of education videos? That blocks the rest of the service aside from those videos? I’ve worked to subvert some of YouTube’s small loops by using custom styles. They remove all the “related” videos and similar side panels. It works. It’s a much more focused, less insane, tempting place. But it still doesn’t feel like a tool that respects the user. So it doesn’t have a place on my phone.
The ever-wonderful Peggy Orenstein explains in an excellent essay — about going offline in 2009 — my instinct for curation, for someone to just select superb, educational videos and keep everything else locked away:
… the trap is more of a bait and switch: the promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information, and the two are hardly the same.
The bud has been nipped. Pretty much all I can do on my phone is message, maps, and email. It feels like a tool that I use, that doesn’t use me, and that brings value to my life. If you see me using it, know that I’m probably doing something boring on it.
I find the tiny loop problem to be terrifying. Tiny loops tend to be perfectly designed to satisfy the id’s raw impulses. That raw id is great fuel for creativity. The concern I have coming back and feeling the loops again for the first time in a long time is: if you’re not careful, tweets and their ilk can burn all your fuel with nothing to show.
Let me make it clear: I was luxuriously, all-consumingly bored for most of the day. The road was often dreary and repetitive. But as trite as it may sound, within this boredom, I tried to cultivate kindness and patience. A continuous walk is powerful because every day you can choose to be a new person. You flit between towns. You don’t really exist. And so this is who I decided to be: a fully present, disgustingly kind hello machine.
Unscheduled time is terrifying. Unscheduled time can lead to boredom. And if you don’t know what to do with boredom then your impulse is to murder all unscheduled time. Allow me to let you in on a secret: You don’t need to do anything with boredom, your brain will figure it out on its own.
Easing into boredom is like easing into a big run. The first few kilometers of a run — for me, anyway — always hurt. My body always rebels. Boredom functions similarly. Since we’ve trained ourselves to reach for our smartphones when presented with even three seconds of potential boredom, the first ten, twenty, thirty minutes of boredom are excruciating.
This pain is a withdrawal symptom. But if you get over that compulsion for info-stimulation, you are presented with an opportunity to replace the tiny loops with much more rewarding activities. On the big walk I doubled down on greetings — like, literally saying konnnichiwa! hundreds of times — and connecting with folks along the road:
I said hello to bent-over grandmothers and their grandchildren playing in rice paddies. I said hello to business folk about to hop into their Suzuki Jimny jeeps, to Portuguese workers on break from car factories, to men in traditional fundoshi underwear about to carry a portable shrine in a festival. I greeted shop owners cranking open their rusted awnings and a man selling chocolate-dipped bananas. I’d estimate a hello return rate of almost 98 percent. Folks looked up from their gardening or sweeping or bananas and flung a hello back, often reflexively but then, once their eyes caught up with their mouths and they saw I was not a local, not one of them, their faces shifted to delight.
I felt as if the walk itself was pulling that kindness from me, biochemically. The feedback cycle was exhilarating. It was banal. It was something I rarely felt when plugged in online: kind hellos begetting hellos, begetting more kindness.
And when there weren’t people to greet, my mind involuntarily began to write Ridgelines and Rodens and other essays. Most of that “writing” I let go. But some of it I captured as I walked. I captured it using Airpods and Notes.app and Siri realtime transcriptions, which, for the most part, worked really well. These are tools designed in your favor. In the end I dictated almost ten thousands words: observations, summaries of days, chunks of essays. All without breaking stride. And that catalogue of thought now lives as searchable text in my notes app. Loop free; just an efficient way to describe what’s happening in a mind and the world.
With everything shut off — no Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, no nytimes.com or news.google.com or Washington Post or MacRumors or Daring Fireball or DPReview, no Reddit or similar — the mind scrambles for a wee bit of entertainment. Starts to look in odd nooks. And the nook I find my mind most readily latching onto is the newsletter nook. And it’s a fine nook indeed.
Newsletters and newsletter startups these days are like mushrooms in an open field after a good spring rain. I don’t know a single writer who isn’t newslettering or newsletter-curious, and for many, the newsletter is where they’re doing their finest public work.
All my newsletters are shoved into a folder in Gmail I never see unless sought out. This Newsletters folder has become a kind of mirror internet, but mirroring only the parts I love, with none of the garbage or loops that can make a person glum. It mirrors thoughtfulness. It mirrors ye olden days of Yahoo! links — hand-picked best-of stuff. It mirrors news with edges.
I don’t subscribe to New York Times’ general news newsletter, but I do subscribe to their Books Briefing newsletter that keeps me abreast of what’s coming out on a given month. This newsletter ends, has an edge, unlike nytimes.com itself (which can’t load on my phone anyway). And is almost always devoid of hyperbole and clickbait headlines. The Observers invariably introduces me to great photographers I had never heard of before, to one or two excellent photo books. (Weirdly, something Instagram never did.) In his excellent The New Consumer, Dan Frommer fills me in on everything I need to know about some tech happening, sans breathlessness and with additional nuance that comes from not needing to be clickbait.
One of the great advantages of the newsletter universe is a detachment from business models predicated on clicks from random passers-by. To beat a dead horse: This means that newsletters generally optimize for the benefit of the reader, not entrapping a reader for the benefit of the newsletter.
Plainly: My newsletter folder feels like a good folder. A folder with good intentions, seeking to infuse a life with knowledge. It’s free of troll barnacles. Unlike a tweet, no venom can latch onto a newsletter. It’s a quiet space, contains only the voices I’ve allowed in.
I think we’ll look back with shock on many “fundamentals” of the internet as it exists today. I’m still amazed that any private organization would allow unfiltered public commenting. I remained totally unconvinced of its benefits. Twitter, in this sense, is just insanity — an endless stream of public comment posturing and signaling and, largely, screaming. Dumb dumb. Basic ’net folly 101.
I believe there is a place for public comments, but the amount of energy required to nurture a positive community is beyond the means or desires of most institutions. And so most comment sections simply don’t provide a healthy place for conversation.
The tiny loops are repetitive, persistent, and omnipresent. They’re always one second away.
Repetition is, I believe, foundational in defining who we are.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.
Of course, what you’re doing is what you’re doing. But what happens when you fully embrace repetition of things beyond Tinder swipes and Twitter reloads?
Me again, on the walk:
Perhaps most importantly, what’s being formed is an understanding of how full a day can be. Of how much richness twenty-four hours can hold, even within the most superficially “boring” of schedules. The day-after-day-after-dayness atop asphalt literally pounds the experience of this richness (the hellos, the conversations, the seeing the landscape subtly shift each day, understanding how and why a certain road came to be by walking it, reading historical accounts as you walk past the very places they occurred, seeing the food change as the culture changes as the topography changes between mountains and plains, and on and on and on) into a body. Creates a muscle memory of that fullness. I have participated in other so-called “real” ascetic practices — mountain ascetic training up on Mount Haguro in Yamagata, for example — and know that repetition is crucial. That this repetition templatizes the sensation of a particular positive, additive physical and chemical configuration. And it’s a template I know with certainty I can call upon when I need to go back to a place of great stillness, of an effortless bobbing consciousness, or the gentle humanity I feel while on the walk.
Repetition builds templates. Templates can be recalled and deployed later, once the asceticism is complete.
Which is to say that reading about a walk will rarely get you any of the benefits of a walk. Intellectualizing what needs to happen for self change doesn’t lead to self change. The best outcome from reading about a long walk is for it to inspire someone to carve out the time in their life for a long walk of their own. And to, hopefully, provide a rough template of how to think about structuring that time of the walk. I could have Instagram story’d the whole damn thing and had a very, very different experience.
What I feel most acutely on my “reentry” is the contrast between the fullness and stillness and productivity and creativity and openness of the mind out on the road, versus the mind trapped in the tiny loops of well-engineered networked apps.
The WIRED essay finishes on a kind of “real” note:
Given time, I will once again be nonsensically addicted to Twitter. And given time, I will absolutely go on yet another long walk. My hope is that the walks win out in the end.
Changes of the self takes ages — years if not decades — and are predicated on committed repetition and invariable regression. We always regress, it’s just a matter of how far. I believe the idea that people can change instantly is largely mythical (although I’m sure it sometimes happens, as folks also sometimes win the lottery).
I feel like I began cultivating the version of self that went on this forty-three day walk — and was capable of pulling from it what I pulled — about ten years ago. A forty-three day walk ten years in the making. A million tiny efforts within a very big loop. A ten-year-self forged on turning down a few drinks here and there that add up to weeks and months of sobriety, of optimizing and consciously making time (often at great monetary opportunity cost) for walks with positive, life affirming people, of attempting and failing to write the bigger stories I’ve wanted to write (thereby nixing those darlings and seeing what else was in the well).
I share this not to murder you with a laser gaze into my navel, but to make clear — unequivocally — how much of a ding dong I am, and to make doubly clear that if anything about the walk looked easy or inevitable, it was anything but.
It was a lot of work. It was absolutely worth it.
Still there? This is what happens when I don’t have an editor.
If you can believe it, an earlier version of this letter was even more hyperbolic.
I’ve been reading Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and it has made me consider the size and breadth of his feedback loops. I don’t know if it’s a great book, but I’m glad to be reading it, and feel like I’m learning from it. The whole book is written in little newsletter-like snippets. Small missives that link together. Some going back in time to provide historical context, others simply moving us through the landscape with Bruce. He’s walking most of it. He runs into an old man:
‘Why do you walk?’ the old man asked. ‘Can’t you ride a horse? People round here hate walkers. They think they’re madmen.’
We are. There’s no need to walk from Tokyo to Kyoto. But it’s worth doing.
The ending of the WIRED piece got chopped up and shimmied around. I like the way it turned out, but still like the old ending. Here it is. Asceticism and madness go hand-in-hand to those looking in from the outside. And I’m sure many who met me along the way thought I was nuts:
In a more contemporary dictionary, “ascetic” is defined in a sentence: “a narrow, humorless, ascetic face.” In which case, no, this isn’t ascetic at all. If anything, my ever-connected face, was narrow and humorless, locked into a furrowed brow. Now, I think, it’s an open and goofy mask. Blubbering “Hello!”s. Big smiles. Excitement over the Stupid Human Trick of walking a very long distance. “I’ve been walking from Tokyo!” I yell. “Wow!” they yell back, not properly registering the meaning of the words. A few second later they’ll yell back down the road to me, “Wait, do you mean you walked all the way from Tokyo?” I did. And it has been boring and hard and my feet and legs hate me, and I have never seen more glorious toilets before in my life.