Travel Diary: I Left My Brain in San Francisco
Kyra and I spent the holidays in San Francisco, first with family and then on a belated honeymoon. I’ve only been to the Bay Area a couple of times, and though it’s probably cliche, I’m always astonished at just how much natural beauty is crammed into one locale. I think Chicago is a beautiful city, but its grandeur is man-made—dramatic architecture against the stark expanse of Lake Michigan and the prairie. I wish I could say that San Francisco’s continuous beauty brought out the poet in me, but with each new vista—the first sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, the view from the top of Corona Heights or Dolores Park, the white city glistening against the bay and ocean—I just kept exclaiming, “Come ON.”
Travel brings out just how much you’ve habituated to home. “Is there a name for these strange and sudden changes in elevation?” we gasped on our first day in the West Portal neighborhood. We hadn’t realized just just how much we’d adapted to the persistent flatness of Chicago. It was disconcerting to wake up quite so sore each morning after merely walking around the city. We started obsessively studying contour maps of the city. “I just don’t want to go down immediately after going up,” I complained to Kyra after a three block walk turned into an alpine adventure. As the temperatures plummeted back home in Chicago to -10°F, we wondered how San Franciscans would negotiate their steep slopes in a bit of snow, let alone a hard freeze. The local enthusiasm for standing in line outside trendy eating establishments struck us a climatic indulgence. “Just think,” I said to Kyra after standing outside for an hour-and-a-half to get the best ramen in the Tenderloin, “If we were in Chicago, we’d be dead by now.”
You never quite lost the knowledge that you were in the tech capital of the United States. We rented a car from a weird start up—like AirBNB for other people’s cars—and ended up driving an 8 year old Prius with 151,000 miles on it. (It was very inexpensive.) If we’d been in Chicago and in any danger of freezing to death, I wouldn’t have risked it. But being a California car, what was the worst that could happen? (First readers have suggested earthquakes and forest fires—fair points.) We took a wrong turn on a road trip south and ended up outside but one of the many office buildings of Netflix in Los Gatos. The headquarters of Apple, Google, and Facebook weren’t very far away—along with what, hundreds, thousands of start ups? And yet we found ourselves, somewhat ironically and unexpectedly, enjoying a natural unplugging. A digital vacation.
Controlling our internet addictions had proven challenging at home. It was the worst in the months just after the election, when we were transfixed by the first avulsions of our current cultural and political crisis. We seemed to be operating under the delusion that if we were on top of every insane moment as it happened that we could gain some kind of control or influence. We were falling asleep over our screens, and our phones were the first things we touched in the morning. In the spring—in a bid for sanity—we banished all electronic devices from the bedroom. And it worked: our evenings improved; our sleep improved; our mornings improved. Like the advice that if you don’t want to eat cake, don’t have cake in the house, it was a lot easier not to stay awake until 3 a.m. f*#%ing around on Twitter if the iPad was two rooms away.
We still struggled to establish real boundaries on the internet during the day. Partly this was because there were things about online life that we genuinely loved. But we didn’t love the compulsion to be online. Unscheduled and non-urgent tasks got pushed aside. I often found myself with my phone in my hand, checking email or Facebook, wondering, “Did I even make the decision to take this out of my pocket?” Kyra later told me that she would get sad any time she went into a bookstore, feeling that her days of reading books were behind her—the only reading she did was online. The worst part was the feeling that we were conspiring with the tech companies to—is this overwrought?—give away our minds.
The addictive qualities of the internet are partly inherent. Facebook and Twitter threads and email inboxes are mostly dreck that is of no interest to you at all. But then—bing!—there's some Facebook meme or Twitter riposte or email offering you a lucrative gig and you're hooked. When training an animal to cue, giving the reward all the time doesn't work as well as giving the reward some of the time. It's called "intermittent reinforcement." And it's a humdinger way of getting people addicted to crap.
It’s also the case that the currency of the modern internet is our attention, and that tech companies are in an arms race competing for that attention. So every app defaults to sending push notifications. Videos play automatically, one-after-another to maximize binge watching. Algorithms attempt to predict what you want to read, watch, or buy. Worst are some (not all) games—specifically designed to be as addicting as possible—and the way in which the algorithmic logic of online life encourages continuous outrage, and the resulting exhausting and increasingly dire shredding of our social fabric.*
One day last year in a bit of historical research on the Alexander Technique, I reread Walter Carrington’s diary of his first lessons with F.M. Alexander. In his first lesson—it was November 25, 1935—Walter recorded, “He suggested that we today live by calculating people’s reactions to stimuli, and so by presentation of stimuli, forming behaviour to our own end. This is probably highly immoral: what we should do is free them from these automatic reactions.”** The passage struck me as almost incredibly prescient, though when I read it to Kyra, she exclaimed, “What was manipulating people back in the 30s? Billboards and radio?”***
What freed Kyra and I from our internet addiction was travel. Behavior change is easier when you’re in a new place, out of your routine. It wasn’t hard not to be online. We were out and about. We went to the San Francisco Zoo and visited the lemurs and grizzly bears. We spent a whole day just wandering Golden Gate Park, from the Haight to the Bison Paddock. (Yes, there’s a bison paddock). We stood in line outside Tartine and Bi-Rite. When we were on our phones, we were learning how to navigate San Francisco’s quixotic public transportation system, rarely checking Facebook or Twitter. By the end of our trip, we not only felt stronger—no longer gasping for breath after walking a block—we felt like our minds had cleared.
One can feel helpless when confronted with the fact that the largest companies in the history of the world are committed to the project of attentional control. But one of the realizations of being on vacation was how easy it was to resist the siren call of our devices. A change of habitat brought with it a change of habit. Kyra and I broke out the contributing factors: being outside; moving; having purpose; being together; having a good book nearby. These all seemed reproducible back home. Well, except for being outside. -10°F is no joke.
Now that we are back home, some of the challenges have reemerged. There is work to do and much of that work happens online or online adjacent. Distraction is always a click away.
And so I’ve started a new daily practice. I think of it as a meditation with devices.
This morning I sat down at the computer, phone by my side and set a timer for five minutes. (I haven't yet found a nice ring tone for the alarm—a meditation bowl tone would seem appropriate.) I opened the laptop, regarded the expectant glow of the screen, and then did nothing.
In the beginning, I did nothing, but the computer did something. It refreshed a web page from last night's browsing. It told me that some calendar items had been rescheduled.
I continued to do nothing, figuring it needed time for its mind to settle down. And then after a minute or two, its screen went dark. And the computer joined me in our nothing.
During our nothing, I watched my impulses come and go, my curiosity about the refreshed web page, the urge to check the calendar. I noticed tensions in my body and then noticed how amenable such tension were to release with my breath. I noticed my breath.
It was enjoyable, this nothing.
Like a mini-digital vacation, but from the comfort of home.
*One of the most interesting critics of the modern internet is Nicholas Carr. See his two books, The Shallows and The Glass Cage. CPG Grey has a persuasive video about the way in which the internet perpetuates cycles of outrage.
**The diary of Walter Carrington’s first lessons is published at the end of his book of conversation with Sean Carey, Personally Speaking, beginning p. 196.
***Alexander's prescience reminds me of an on old Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. Calvin is reading a book and says to Hobbes, “It says here that ‘Religion is the opiate of the masses.’ What do you suppose that means?” And a television responds, “It means Karl Marx hadn’t seen anything yet!”
To answer Kyra's question, the 1930s were a time when the modern media industry was forming—so radio is probably not a bad answer. The two world wars also gave rise to modern propaganda techniques. And the early twentieth century saw the first examples of mass marketing. But Alexander was probably referring to underlying strategies of conditioning and the science of behaviorism—such as the uses of intermittent reinforcers to manipulate behavior. Though Alexander was no behaviorist, the historic influence of behaviorism on the Alexander Technique is very complex—a topic for another blog post.