I've heard about the Slow Web movement for quite some time, but never really made a concerted effort to engage with the idea much. Being a programmer, I obviously love technology, and see any opposition to its prevalence to be not just a postponement of the inevitable, but also... weird. It just seems like an outdated approach to the things that have been consistently making our lives better.
Engagement, however, is different from bombardment, and we're not just talking about online advertising or 24/7 news cycles. There are millions upon millions of web sites vying for your attention, while app stores are filled with notification-heavy apps, micro transaction games, and other productivity killers. At what point have you ceased being engaged with technology, and instead become a slave to the constant bombardment from companies looking for more page views, more clicks, and more shares?
I'm not talking about shunning technology, and that certainly isn't the purpose of the Slow Web movement. In fact, Bill Ahern is fond of saying that he would jack his brain/essence directly into a network a la Tron, if it were possibly. The difference is that Bill still has control over his technological engagement. That's choice.
The Slow Web has a nice little intro:
How long has it been since you looked at your phone? How long since you checked it for email? Do you feel it vibrate in the middle of the day, when nothing is even there? Can you ever let it go when something is?
This is the Fast Web, an attention machine designed to keep you looking. And it's very good at what it does. Every day, smart and talented people work to make the things you love the most, and to make sure you're always paying attention to them.
This neatly sums up the issue by giving you a clear picture of the most common occurrence of invasive technology: real time updating. Although it's great to get all of the information you want immediately, feel free to stress the word want. The key difference is that "real time" isn't necessarily "timely." Jack Cheng has an excellent examination of timeliness in his post on the Slow Web. The gist is that while most cell phone apps and services are focusing on real time, very few are focusing on what really matters: being timely.
Cutting the Cord
Cutting the cord (i.e., getting rid of cable) has become a common turn of phrase in recent years with the proliferation of streaming services, especially with the IT crowd, and younger generations. Eliminating scheduled television, however, uncovers an interesting psychological switch. You no longer can ask the common question: "what is on television right now?" Instead, you have to ask the question: "what do I want to watch right now?"
This is a jarring switch in context, and upon first cutting the cord, you'll find yourself surfing through the available streaming shows and movies, finding a hard time to make a decision. You've been trained to turn on the television, see what's on, and zone out to a program. When that easy way of zoning out has been removed, and you instead have to make a choice on entertainment consumption, it shifts the way you view your time and what you choose to watch.
To me, this is a nice parallel with the real-time versus timely view of Internet consumption. Broadcast and cable television are real-time, but streaming is timely.
Internet Addiction and Cyberpsychology
I specialized in Cyberpsychology in college--between the electives and my undergraduate and graduate research. Cyberpsychology is just a fancy word for human-computer interaction, but it helps to get across the potential for psychological issues in dealing with technology.
Internet addiction, for example, is a real thing. It follows much of the same format as the addiction of just about anything else with the exception of physical symptoms from chemical agents. This isn't to say that physical symptoms don't occur. Anxiety from withdrawal is certainly something that many addicted individuals experience when away from the Internet for too long.
Additionally, as Peter Diamandis notes about Dunbar's Number in his book Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think, anthropologically, the human brain is wired for roughly 150 interpersonal relationships, but the modern concept of the nuclear family severely limits relationships with an extended family or the greater "tribe." This modern limitation has caused human beings to fill out the rest of those relationship slots with those we most often have contact with--even if that contact is one-way through watching a celebrity on television (which also somewhat explains the obsession with gossip).
The Internet--through social networks--helps to feed this need to fill out the remaining relationship slots, and maintaining those connections can result in an "addiction" to real-time notifications.
Some Personal Anecdotes
I became interested in the Slow Web after reading the profile of Kai Brach on Minimums. Here was a design/tech guy, making his living on the Internet, who was trying to spend less time with technology. It caused me to look back on some of my own interactions with technology, and ask myself if I was truly engaging with it, or if I was simply being overcome by the real time invasiveness of most apps.
Remember Foursquare? It was a nice fad that most people on Twitter were hooked on for a time. It was the lone survivor of the check-in style phone apps. Most people abandoned it, and Foursquare eventually spun the check-in functionality off into an app called Swarm. I used Swarm, and so did a core group of Internet friends. Between mayorships and leaderboards, it offered a nice competitive feel, and I could fool myself by saying that I was contributing to the location layer of the web. The reality was that every time I was walking into a new restaurant or store I was reaching into my phone to check in. It was literally the first thing I did.
How many different ways does your cell phone notify you of something? My iPhone will notify me with a badge, vibration, and sound, as well as a lock screen message and an entry in the notification center. Is all that really necessary? My phone would go off, and I naturally found myself checking the notification whether spam email, sports score for a team I actually didn't follow, LinkedIn prompts, etc. Every app is offering some form of notification, and most are offering multiple ways to siphon away your attention.
Speaking of notifications, do you have an Apple Watch or a Microsoft Band? You can get your notifications there too. I have a Microsoft Band, I get the pleasure of having my wrist vibrate every time someone Tweets me or sends me an email.
It was with these three scenarios that I started to experiment with the Slow Web. The first thing I did was turn off most notifications on my Band. I bought it for hiking, but keep it on for the step counts; however, I was foolish enough to use all of the notification abilities I could get it to muster: Twitter, Facebook Messenger, the entire phone notification center. I turned off everything except for notifications dealing with phone calls and text messaging. Sometimes when my phone is in my pocket, I won't hear it or feel it vibrate, so I let my Band receive those notifications in case my wife needs to get a hold of me (we have infant twins, so there are always errands to run).
The next step was to limit my interactions with my phone. Email was the big thing. I turned off the sound and vibration notifications for my personal email, so that instead of checking my phone each time a notification comes across, I check my email when I want to check my email (Novel, huh?). In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of apps that I left sound notifications on for.
Lastly, I deleted the Swarm app from my phone. If I decide I want to check in somewhere, I'll just do it on Facebook with an attached photo, which means that it'll be on rare occasions, and only to celebrate something that I want my family members in New Jersey to see.
These are just a few first steps. How is it going? It was quite interesting feeling a touch of anxiety the first weekend I went out without the Swarm app. I kept reaching for my pocket to check in, but the app wasn't there on my phone. The following weekend, while out with the wife and kids, there was no buzzing, no vibrations (on the phone or the Band), and I found myself going a few hours without even thinking about my phone or what might be on it. It was a rather liberating feeling.
During the week, I get home at about 6:00pm and my twins go to bed at 7:00pm. I've been forcing myself to put my phone down when I get home, and leave it down. I only get an hour to spend with my kids each day during the week, and even if they're too busy playing with each other or their toys to care what I'm doing, I'd much rather be engaged with them than an electronic device.
When it comes to the Slow Web, I still have more work to do, but this is a good start.