"A fully present, disgustingly kind hello machine."
June 4, 2019 8:11 AM   Subscribe

"A month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. ... The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. ... My phone ceased to be a teleportation machine and became, instead, a context machine." Craig Mod, The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan.

See also: Ridgeline, Mod's email newsletter about walking.
posted by oulipian (43 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Sigh. We really have reached the dystopian future where it is noteworthy to not be constantly connected.

Of particular note was his regular complaint of boredom while walking through new territory. How can you possibly be bored with the world unfolding around you like that? It boggles the ... well it boggles my mind. I know plenty of people who would sympathize. And to them I say: if you’re going to live in the world of your audiobook, or podcasts or music, just go to the gym and use the treadmill.

But yes, I’m an atavism. I’m glad this guy got to have the experience of being present in the world, but I’m sad that he never seemed to fully adjust.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:30 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


Mod is using the word "boredom" kind of playfully, though – it's clear it's something he's seeking out, not something he's lamenting. "In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction."
posted by oulipian at 8:45 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


I've always wanted to do one of these walks, though lately I wonder if my knees are up to it.
posted by praemunire at 8:50 AM on June 4


Bored has an unpleasant connotation. If your idleness is pleasing you at a given moment describing it as boredom is misleading. There is a huge difference between mere mental disengagement and being uncomfortable with a perceived lack of stimulation. They are entirely different feelings, at least in my experience.
posted by wierdo at 8:54 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I think it's a terrible symptom of our current age that "not actively engaging in productive work" can only be conceptualized as "boredom". Even if it's done playfully.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:03 AM on June 4 [7 favorites]


The guy is not hiking through endless mountain vistas, he's (at least some of the time) plodding along some semi-rural highway with correspondingly dreary architecture. I defy you not to be bored from time to time, doing that for hours.
posted by praemunire at 9:04 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Sigh. We really have reached the dystopian future where it is noteworthy to not be constantly connected.

The modern Walden is a series of tweets about your spiritual journey after misplacing your phone for an afternoon.
posted by peeedro at 9:13 AM on June 4 [15 favorites]


This was a lovely read. As a distance runner who has so far resisted buying a GPS tracker, it gave me faith in my non-satellite-guided path.
posted by helpthebear at 9:17 AM on June 4 [3 favorites]


"The goal ... is to use the network without being used by it."
Banal enough sentiment, but the story behind it will sit with me while I think, or metaphorically walk, through my own relationship to tech. I don't think the boredom, the disconnection from his community online or the physical exercise were easy experiences for the author. He talks about withdrawal. And it was published in Wired - that edifice to the wonders of all things tech.
posted by zenon at 9:29 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


The guy is not hiking through endless mountain vistas, he's (at least some of the time) plodding along some semi-rural highway with correspondingly dreary architecture. I defy you not to be bored from time to time, doing that for hours.
praemunire

Exactly. I mean, statements like this:

How can you possibly be bored with the world unfolding around you like that? It boggles the ... well it boggles my mind.
Tell Me No Lies

You're constantly wandering around in wide-amazement of the glory of the world no mattter where you are or what you're doing? Come on.

This is just ridiculous romanticizing of a past that never existed. It's a of a piece with those articles showing people on a train looking at their phones and lamenting the death of human interaction and the Good Old Days when people would talk to each other and have real human connections...never mind the fact that people found ways to ignore each other long before phones came along.

Hell, Walden was written in the Glorious Pre-Phone Time when apparently everyone was Living In the Moment. Why did Thoreau even need to bother?
posted by Sangermaine at 9:31 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


I thought that was lovely, and chimed closely with my (limited) experience of solo long-distance cycle touring.

In my case, I saw a lot of spectacular and interesting things - mountain passes and forests and seas and islands and bridges and sunsets - and a lot of kind of, well, boring things - flat rural roads and industrial agriculture and the odd dreary suburb - and I definitely experienced a similar trance-like state in which even the boring things were kind of interesting. "Wow, that's a lot of apples trees"... two hours later ... "huh, still a lot of apple trees. Kind of soothing. Hope I didn't get a slow puncture from that broken glass a couple of miles back."

In fact, I had really anticipated that I would be spending a lot of time thinking while in the saddle, and was even a bit worried about the prospect before setting off. What if I drove myself crazy? In fact, I needn't have worried. I thought very little at all, and what thinking I did do (beyond practical matters of navigation and worrying about bicycle maintenance and wondering whether that was a raincloud up ahead) was mostly a very pleasant languorous musing that meandered gently from one idea to another over the course of an afternoon and didn't really go anywhere particular at all.

So the enjoyment of boredom while doing a slow, repetitive thing in a landscape that only varies gradually rang completely true to me. There's nothing wrong with being bored. If anything, we're massively overstimulated these days. I spent a lot of time in my childhood being bored, and since then I've had a couple of experiences that I remember very fondly, despite their being largely "boring" after the initial novelty faded. One was cycle touring, another would be the year I spent on a poor and underdeveloped island in the tropics.

Boring is OK. Boring is soothing. Boring means that you're living life at a different pace. Boring is allowed!
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:40 AM on June 4 [16 favorites]


The guy is not hiking through endless mountain vistas, he's (at least some of the time) plodding along some semi-rural highway with correspondingly dreary architecture. I defy you not to be bored from time to time, doing that for hours.

Over a period of four months I walked 300 miles inside the city limits of the town I live in. It is not an architecturally varied place and with its garbage strewn streets and run down buildings it could be reasonably called a dump.

I never once felt bored walking in new territory, no matter how similar it was to a street I walked before. The little variants that people make on a common theme all have interesting stories behind them. Every little detail of human artifacts has been made by someone for a specific reason. It fascinates me.

I’d like to say I keep an open and welcoming state of mind even in places I’ve walked repeatedly, especially because when I do keep one I frequently see totally new things. However, that appears to be beyond me. In fact the areas close to my house are so well trodden that I’ve taken to having Uber drop me four or five miles out so I can spend most of my walk not being bored by the familiar.

So I do understand how you can be bored while out for a walk. I just can’t imagine being bored with something new to experience.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:42 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


TMNL was talking specifically about the experience of walking through new territory, and described the experience succinctly, and not a "wide-[eyed]amazement .. no matter .. where .. or what...
posted by the Real Dan at 9:42 AM on June 4


You're constantly wandering around in wide-amazement of the glory of the world no mattter where you are or what you're doing? Come on.

Only when I’m seeing new stuff. And the world is seldom glorious. It’s *interesting.*
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:43 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


The modern Walden is a series of tweets about your spiritual journey after misplacing your phone for an afternoon.

On the upside, you're probably not going to read as much like a smug entitled condescending parochial super-white mansplaining thirtysomething self-satisfied humblebragging windbag as Thoreau.
posted by flabdablet at 9:49 AM on June 4 [8 favorites]


I really like that he did not at any point post a photo of the toilet.
posted by egypturnash at 9:52 AM on June 4 [12 favorites]


No matter how well trod, no path on Earth is precisely the same each time it is taken. So no, I literally can't understand how someone can be moving in the world and be bored. Disinterested, sure, preoccupied with ruminative thoughts that make a podcast or something you have to actively follow, I can also understand. I can't understand using the word bored in the author's context, however.
posted by wierdo at 9:52 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


I thought for a second, and unable to name just one, answered, with overly earnest awkwardness: the health care system, the lack of guns, the safety.

This is sad. He could be describing any first world country that isn't the US.

The cafe owner smiled. I think he wanted me to say “The sushi.”

Yes, or literally anything that relates to Japan specifically
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:13 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


Well. I've been bored walking in totally new territory. Any long hiking or kayaking trip means a healthy chunk of bored time. The Okefenokee Swamp, for instance. Water lilies water lilies water lilies water lilies. Oh, more water lilies? yes: water lilies. Water lilies. Water lilies. Water lilies. Alligator. Water lilies. For hours and hours and hours and hours. After a while, you are no longer interested in the water lilies. Nor are you interested in the alligators, unless it's a baby: then you can't be bored because they're so cute and make the sweet little chirping noises that sound so adorable but that indicate baby alligator panic and mean MAMMA'S ON HER WAY!

Boredom is a natural accompaniment to repetitive motion. When you shift from being able the flip on the TV or the radio or open a book anytime you want to schlepping along in a language- and music-absent headspace for hours and hours, you can become bored. Your brain has to acclimate just the same way your arms and legs do. Boredom exists in the world and many people have experienced it, even in novel situations.

I really like that he did not at any point post a photo of the toilet.

Yep! That's what kept me reading long enough to get engaged. "Maybe there'll be a pic of the terlet!"
posted by Don Pepino at 10:13 AM on June 4 [5 favorites]


Boredom is referred to as 'glorious' in the title of the linked piece. There is a lot of precedent for reevaluations of our relationship to boredom, and how rich, multivalent, salutary those states can be. The cavilling about it in this thread feels uncharitable.
posted by salt grass at 10:22 AM on June 4 [9 favorites]


The little variants that people make on a common theme all have interesting stories behind them. Every little detail of human artifacts has been made by someone for a specific reason. It fascinates me.

I am a city walker. All of this is true. Nonetheless, the human brain doesn't work like this. If you think it does (or even should), you're kidding yourself. Your job is filled with tiny daily variants, too. Don't tell me that's never boring.

There is a lot of precedent for reevaluations of our relationship to boredom, and how rich, multivalent, salutary those states can be.

I mean, I hate to drag in David Foster Wallace, but...David Foster Wallace.
posted by praemunire at 10:29 AM on June 4


honestly? with all due respect. white man discovers silence.
posted by hugbucket at 10:34 AM on June 4 [6 favorites]


white man discovers silence.
Sure, okay, but before grad school I went backpacking in the High Uintas for a week with a bunch of kids from Tampa, none of whom were male and most of whom weren't white, and every single one of them was bored out of her mind for portions of the trip despite the fact that they'd most of them never been out of Florida, much less to Utah. And this was before facebook and twitter. The adults were treated to many many performances of The Macarena.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:51 AM on June 4 [4 favorites]


honestly? with all due respect. white man discovers silence.

Feels... kind of orientalist?

Like, anywhere you go in the world there will be noisy, busy urban centres, there will be much quieter rural places, and there will be people who dedicate their lives to quiet contemplation. Trappists and hermits and the like are common to all cultures.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 11:27 AM on June 4


Feels... kind of orientalist?

Unless I've misunderstood the article, he's lived in Japan for decades. He's not going to the Exotic Orient to be Enlightened. He's trying to understand the benefits of more limited connection in the context of paying more attention to the place he lives in.

I don't think this is a particularly genius piece but I am slightly puzzled by the hostile reception here.
posted by praemunire at 11:32 AM on June 4 [11 favorites]


I don't think this is a particularly genius piece but I am slightly puzzled by the hostile reception here.

Me too (OP here). I guess the headline makes the article an easy target for drive-by snark, and perhaps I should've added more context. I think there's some good stuff in this essay: an unexpectedly glorious toilet, ideas about using technology more purposefully, a bit about the history of this particular slice of Japan, an ambient audio publishing experiment, excellent photographs. Bickering over the word "boredom" is kind of a boring way to engage with it. But I'll stop threadsitting.
posted by oulipian at 11:52 AM on June 4 [13 favorites]


The genre of "I have discovered that limiting the inputs of this busy world can be nifty" is evergreen, and predates Thoreau by many, many years.

It's going to keep happening, because new people keep entering into this busy world.

If you're already familiar with this genre, that's nifty, too! But there will continue to be people discovering this, despite the fact that you have already done so.
posted by salt grass at 11:54 AM on June 4 [2 favorites]


it isn't drive by snark if having followed the author for a while on social media, and then occasionally seeing posts/articles shared via mutual acquaintances means i have some exposure to the author and his ideas - in fact there was an article of his on font sizes in books that I really resonated with but this whole thing of "omg can I leave teh tech behind or detach from social" exemplifies a certain trend, and yes, perhaps in today's world, it just comes across as so much designer privilege that navel gazes whilst having had a hand in creating it in the first place - enough detachment but not so much taht the tech giants panic
posted by hugbucket at 12:12 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


the snark in this thread's comment probably comes from having just seen twitterati exclaiming over zuck's discovery of mobile money
posted by hugbucket at 12:12 PM on June 4


Unless I've misunderstood the article, he's lived in Japan for decades. He's not going to the Exotic Orient to be Enlightened.

In case it was unclear, I was responding to the comment that I quoted, not to the OP (which I liked a lot, as per my previous comment).

I think “white guy discovers silence” is kind of an absurd criticism of the article, and the implicit suggestion that appreciating silence is somehow inherently or culturally non-white seems pretty questionable.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 12:40 PM on June 4 [10 favorites]


I really enjoyed this article. I thought Mod's system of sharing his journey was fascinating, the way he can post photos and text and audio but then mediate how he receives engagement or feedback. The idea that he's going to go home to a print copy of responses to his pictures is really lovely. I wonder if he open-sourced the setup. The essay makes me try to imagine how social media could be a healthy way (for me? for everyone?) to connect with the world, instead of consuming and crushing.
posted by grette at 1:57 PM on June 4 [7 favorites]


Metafilter: ridiculous romanticizing of a past that never existed... a smug entitled condescending parochial super-white mansplaining thirtysomething self-satisfied humblebragging windbag... mental disengagement and being uncomfortable with a perceived lack of stimulation... wandering around in wide-amazement of the glory of the world no mattter where you are or what you're doing? Come on... the human brain doesn't work like this... white man discovers silence... kind of orientalist... it isn't drive by snark
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:03 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


I think there are lots of people who walk and don't listen to anything. Being alone with one's thoughts shouldn't cause boredom. Walking provides a great opportunity to think and reflect. This should not be a revelation to anyone.
posted by JamesBay at 5:13 PM on June 4


Metafilter: ridiculous romanticizing of a past that never existed... a smug entitled condescending parochial super-white mansplaining thirtysomething self-satisfied humblebragging windbag... mental disengagement and being uncomfortable with a perceived lack of stimulation... wandering around in wide-amazement of the glory of the world no mattter where you are or what you're doing? Come on... the human brain doesn't work like this... white man discovers silence... kind of orientalist... it isn't drive by snark

Hi, please go back and re-read the comment in question and note that it is explicitly responding to a previous comment (quoted in its entirety!!) and not the OP.

I clarified that in this comment, which is literally two comments above yours.

Thanks. Here are my actual views about the OP, for the avoidance of further doubt.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:33 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


With regards to boredom I think it's very much a temperamental thing. My best friend, god bless him, can't get two steps out the door without some media or another blaring in his ears. The film/tv to watch with dinner is chosen like a fine wine, and a compromise with his wife means he doesn't get to have the television on when he goes to sleep but they do have an audiobook playing.

In our constant back and forth he insists that he *is* fully there in the moment, it's just that his moment includes media of some description. He's not wrong, but I think he's missing something important.

(there is a similar issue around pacing. If we get into nature he wants to put his seven league boots on and polish off the hike while I'm still ten feet into the trail trying to understand why a bird would build a nest so low in a tree. "I enjoy nature as much as you", he says, "I just do it faster.")
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:59 PM on June 4 [3 favorites]


I'm also annoyed by the puritanical, priggish tendency in North America to shame certain behaviours that are entirely a matter of private concern, such as the decision to consume media while walking. Who cares? It's nobody's business but your own.
posted by JamesBay at 6:41 PM on June 4


Who cares? It's nobody's business but your own.

Do whatever you like, but I’m not going to be shy about expressing my sadness about the opportunities you’re missing.

If that makes you feel judged I’m afraid I can’t do much about it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:30 PM on June 4


I don't feel judged. As I may have mentioned upthread, I don't listen to media when walking. I certainly don't feel superior about it (as one does when one is "saddened" when "judging" others).

Things would be much better if we saved our energies about caring about things that are actually important.
posted by JamesBay at 7:34 PM on June 4


I was subscribed to Mod's texting service during the walk (one text message and a photo daily), and I have to say I found the walk, the way he shared it via texting, the routes, and the articles afterwards very interesting and indeed inspiring.

One of the things it made me wonder, is why we don't have similar walking routes around here. We are in fact establishing things like rail-trails and the Appalachian Trail, Ozark Trail, and the like. Those certainly have their place but the type of thing he is describing--the Nakasendo, a centuries old traditional walking route--is something really completely different from anything we have around here.

For one thing, the sort of trails we tend to establish here are "nature trails". That is an important type of thing, but they really go out of their way to avoid every city and populated area. The type of trail that actually does wend its way through craptastic suburban wastelands as well as cities, small towns, and remote natural areas is a really different perspective. And you'll notice that the highlights of his walk are the people he meets in various places--particularly small rural towns--along the way.

Another interesting aspect is the way he is able to use technology to navigate, which really does open up possibilities on a tour like this. It allows you to both follow the route and explore outside the route more freely than you ever could with paper maps.

I'm pretty convinced that one reason things like gravel cycling are opening up now is because technology like GPS units, online mapping, and cell/satellite phone coverage allow you to travel these places with some degree of assurance and a safety net. This type of technology really does open up new possibilities.

Anyway, the inspiration from this trip--certainly not alone, but together with a lot of other circumstances, and a fairly large group of people we've been working with for a couple of years--was actually one of the final things that tipped us over the edge of establishing a new and interesting thing rather like the Nakasendo route here in our neck of the woods.

And, it seems to be off to a rather auspicious start. Interestingly, one of the things it roughly follows is one of the old Native American trails, which was then taken over as a route by the European settlers, the military, etc. That type of thing is probably about the closest we have around here to historical routes like the Nakasendo, and those deep historical roots are certainly one of the things that makes the project appealing.

But, a topic for another day, I suppose.

Rats, forgot to argue about whether it's OK to admit that you're bored or not, and also to find several hotbutton bits of minutae with which to eviscerate the article and author. Maybe next time . . .
posted by flug at 7:51 PM on June 4 [6 favorites]


What's the deal with problematizing boredom so hard? It's good for you. It's healthy, something like the thing where you stress the muscle and it tears and hurts and then mends and gets stronger. You stress the brain with mile on mile of sameness and plod and it howls fruitlessly for a while and then realizes that the waterlilies are infinite and it adapts. It stretches and strains; it heals, and gets stronger. That's what boredom is. It's not a sin. It's not a failure. It's a natural and necessary human state of mind.

In any case, yep: the stuff in the article about the mental anguish pretty much universally associated with lengthy walks/paddles/road trips yadda was a tiny part of the article. And not a particularly revolutionary part of it. You can read the same thing in Bill Bryson's walking books and everybody's walking books, because this is a part of everybody's walking experience. The article was crammed with neat stuff. If all you got out of it was that dude got bored on occasion, I’m not going to be shy about expressing my sadness about the opportunities you’re missing.

If that makes you feel judged I’m afraid I can’t do much about it.
posted by Don Pepino at 3:56 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


You're constantly wandering around in wide-amazement of the glory of the world no mattter where you are or what you're doing? Come on.

This is pretty much me. But then I am insanely curious and have a shitty memory so even my extremely well-trodden routes through my city feel like the ever changing Dark City as business come and go and buildings vanish and appear all around me.

If you are attuned to people, details, history and nature even the most seemingly banal places are a wonder. Banality itself even becomes a wonder.

However, I find my smart phone and network connectivity augments this fractal awareness of my situation rather than detracts from it. I guess it is all in how you use it and I tend to use my phone to magnify my current situational awareness rather than escape it.
posted by srboisvert at 5:21 AM on June 5


What's the deal with problematizing boredom so hard?

People think of the concept of boredom in some distinctly different ways. Some refer to it in a more neutral sense of moments where the events of the present, the things you are doing, seeing, hearing, etc. lack flavor and the mind seeks other methods to occupy itself. Boredom in that sense is describing the switch of attention from the moment to something other. While for others it is used to suggest the inability to occupy one's mind at all and can only be sated by finding other activities in the present to overcome. Boredom in that sense is a failure of sorts to be able to entertain oneself without external stimuli.

People using the term in the latter sense often use it as a negative for associating it with others who demand entertainment at all times when their own experience is one where constant external stimulation is annoying. It's like trying to read a book near someone else constantly saying "I'm bored". People who use the term boredom in the former sense are those more speaking to their own experience and simply noting a transitional state between two forms of mental activity. Or so it seems to me from how I hear the term used anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:37 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


I, too, don't quite understand the hostility towards the piece. It seems to be of a genre in the lineage of writers as varied as WG Sebald, Rebecca Solnit, Teju Cole—among many others. I see a transference of one's view on boredom to that of the writer where boredom is to be understood, after all, as "glorious". It's not dystopian but rather another walk along the Suffolk Coast, a stroll through a "series of interiors", a trudge through snowy Central Park.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 12:11 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


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