I’m writing this in the evening, on a laptop resting on a work board my kid bought me for Xmas. The board is actually intended for tablets, and has a long slot so you can prop the tablet up, lay the board (with its beanbag-padded underside) on your belly and watch Netflix in bed until Netflix checks to see if you died. But it works fine for writing on a laptop on the sofa in the living room. I note all this because at this hour I would usually be writing in a notebook with a pen.
In 2020 I dropped pretty much all of my digital tools. Somewhere around here will be a photo of the notebooks I’ve filled in the last two years.
I almost exclusively think on paper these days. The first page of each notebook is used for a numbered index. When I’m jotting down something I know I’m going to want to refer to later, I assign it a number on the index page and write the same number on the top right hand corner of the piece I’m referencing. I write in it pretty much every day. It serves as work book, commonplace book, personal journal, anything I want to be. The numbering on the spines is done with a Pentel white-out pen. (UK) (US) (Pretty sure I picked up that trick from the Cool Tools newsletter.)
I like it. It’s calming. It allows my mind to wander more. I make different kinds of connections to the ones I used to. It’s more reflective. I do wish my handwriting was better, but I’ve wished that since I was ten, and it’s time to let that go. I use a Pilot Frixion erasable pen in Moleskines, and write in black block capitals that most of the time I can actually understand a day later. (Not always. Sometimes I’ve had to examine my writing under strong light to decipher exactly what the hell I was scrawling down.)
My phone has been made very still – limited notifications, fewer apps – and I’m not connected to the social internet at all, which takes away a number of attention-stealing cycles. I have newsletters, RSS feeds and bookmarks for news sources.
Craig Mod, recently:
“…so glad to be off Twitter, off the networks, off the slurping of the timelines. The mind really does expand, the shoulders relax when you disengage. That din of those places seeps into work. I felt that in reading this other, sloppy essay — oh, this sentence? This sentence is for the algorithm. For the likes. It was a bit sad, is all.”
There is, of course, a tendency to be a little… self-congratulatory about coming off the social internet? Not that I’m accusing Mr. Mod of that, at all. He’s making a good point, too. But I think there’s also some duty to not talk about it like one is newly sober. It’s not a fucking miracle to discover new focus from ceasing to use networked systems that are a dozen years old. Even when I wasn’t actively using Twitter as an engaged speaker, I was using it for news — but the thing about using Twitter for news is that you cannot completely filter out everything that’s not actual news of some kind, and you can’t filter out everything that’s not bullshit clickbait “headlines” and “quotes.”
Someone sent me this article the other day, and here’s the quote we both independently flagged from it:
But just because something makes waves on Twitter doesn’t mean it actually matters to most people. According to the Pew Research Center, only 23 percent of U.S. adults use Twitter, and of those users, “the most active 25% … produced 97% of all tweets.” In other words, nearly all tweets come from less than 6 percent of American adults. This is not a remotely good representation of public opinion, let alone newsworthiness, and treating it as such will inevitably result in wrong conclusions.
I’m not as up to date on some things as I used to be, but, framing it like that — what am I really missing? Value is not necessarily intrinsic to a digital service (or most other things). We choose to invest these things with value. And sometimes we’re too caught up in the stream to reframe these things and do a proper test on them. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate snapping out of long-term behavioral loops that one allowed to form in the first damn place. One just gets it done and then keeps getting it done until it’s better, I think.
There’s a tech industry term: dogfooding. It means using your own product or service. The inventor of Twitter fucks off to silent tech-free meditation retreats for weeks at a time. How was that not a red flag?
I read digitally on a Kindle for the most part, for reasons of There Is No More Space In This Little House For Books. When I finish reading a book, I download and print off my Kindle highlights, and paste them into a notebook.
I used to take a photo every day, and post it here and/or Instagram. I don’t take a photo a day any more, but, when I do photograph something I want to remember, I use a fun little device I bought in 2020 for this analogue purpose. It’s an Instax mini-printer (UK) (US), which churns out half-size Polaroids that I put into the notebook with sticky dots.
Somewhere around here will be a Weathershot Pro photo. The Instax photos are too small to allow the data chyron to be visible. I like the data on Weathershot photos. I miss having that. Note the portrait size. I no longer need to frame photos for social media, so I can use whatever size I like.
I still use Bandcamp. Bandcamp is a store with very basic “social” functions that can be cut off – it doesn’t distract or engage, nobody can reach you, it just plays and sells you music. Most of the music I buy there is physical, but sometimes it’s digital, and my wishlist is digital. Just writing down URLs in a notebook seems fairly pointless.
I have not yet built the habit of writing about the books I read in the notebook. I just paste in the record of sentences and paragraphs I want to remember. I seem to have this deep-seated muscle-memory-like thing, that writing about books is a thing that happens on a keyboard, and is put out into the public space in case it helps anyone else curate their reading.
All of which is to say, I’m happier in an analogue life, but there are things that only really work for me on a digital level. I liked taking a photo a day, and we tend to forget that digital photography means we no longer burn through expensive physical film and processing to get that photo a day. And also we get as many tries as we want to get a photo we like enough to represent that day. Especially when one is, like me, a terrible photographer who just farts around with a camera because we like it.
So I’ve decided to reactivate LTD, in a limited way. I’m conceiving of it, at this time, as the digital tool that fills in the few gaps I have remaining in a life of knowledge work and personal record. Here’s where I am today and here’s what I think it looks like. These are the things I can see and hear. These are the books I want to remember because culture is made up of what remains after everything else has been forgotten. Also photos of chickens.
And now I’m closing the laptop and picking up my notebook, and lighting a fire so that my fingers warm up enough to hold a damn pen properly.