Posts Tagged ‘Technology’
“The beat of my heart has grown deeper, more active, and yet more peaceful, and it is as if I were all the time storing up inner riches…My [life] is one long sequence of inner miracles.” The young Dutchwoman Etty Hillesum wrote that in a Nazi transit camp in 1943, on her way to her death at Auschwitz two months later. Towards the end of his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen,” though by then he had already lost his father when he was 7, his first wife when she was 20 and his first son, aged 5. In Japan, the late 18th-century poet Issa is celebrated for his delighted, almost child-like celebrations of the natural world. Issa saw four children die in infancy, his wife die in childbirth, and his own body partially paralyzed.
I’m not sure I knew the details of all these lives when I was 29, but I did begin to guess that happiness lies less in our circumstances than in what we make of them, in every sense. “There is nothing either good or bad,” I had heard in high school, from Hamlet, “but thinking makes it so.” I had been lucky enough at that point to stumble into the life I might have dreamed of as a boy: a great job writing on world affairs for Time magazine, an apartment (officially at least) on Park Avenue, enough time and money to take vacations in Burma, Morocco, El Salvador. But every time I went to one of those places, I noticed that the people I met there, mired in difficulty and often warfare, seemed to have more energy and even optimism than the friends I’d grown up with in privileged, peaceful Santa Barbara, Calif., many of whom were on their fourth marriages and seeing a therapist every day. Though I knew that poverty certainly didn’t buy happiness, I wasn’t convinced that money did either.
So — as post-1960s cliché decreed — I left my comfortable job and life to live for a year in a temple on the backstreets of Kyoto. My high-minded year lasted all of a week, by which time I’d noticed that the depthless contemplation of the moon and composition of haiku I’d imagined from afar was really more a matter of cleaning, sweeping and then cleaning some more. But today, more than 21 years later, I still live in the vicinity of Kyoto, in a two-room apartment that makes my old monastic cell look almost luxurious by comparison. I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack.
I’m no Buddhist monk, and I can’t say I’m in love with renunciation in itself, or traveling an hour or more to print out an article I’ve written, or missing out on the N.B.A. Finals. But at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did. And it seemed quite useful to take a clear, hard look at what really led to peace of mind or absorption (the closest I’ve come to understanding happiness). Not having a car gives me volumes not to think or worry about, and makes walks around the neighborhood a daily adventure. Lacking a cell phone and high-speed Internet, I have time to play ping-pong every evening, to write long letters to old friends and to go shopping for my sweetheart (or to track down old baubles for two kids who are now out in the world).
When the phone does ring — once a week — I’m thrilled, as I never was when the phone rang in my overcrowded office in Rockefeller Center. And when I return to the United States every three months or so and pick up a newspaper, I find I haven’t missed much at all. While I’ve been rereading P.G. Wodehouse, or “Walden,” the crazily accelerating roller-coaster of the 24/7 news cycle has propelled people up and down and down and up and then left them pretty much where they started. “I call that man rich,” Henry James’s Ralph Touchett observes in “Portrait of a Lady,” “who can satisfy the requirements of his imagination.” Living in the future tense never did that for me.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend my life to most people — and my heart goes out to those who have recently been condemned to a simplicity they never needed or wanted. But I’m not sure how much outward details or accomplishments ever really make us happy deep down. The millionaires I know seem desperate to become multimillionaires, and spend more time with their lawyers and their bankers than with their friends (whose motivations they are no longer sure of). And I remember how, in the corporate world, I always knew there was some higher position I could attain, which meant that, like Zeno’s arrow, I was guaranteed never to arrive and always to remain dissatisfied.
Being self-employed will always make for a precarious life; these days, it is more uncertain than ever, especially since my tools of choice, written words, are coming to seem like accessories to images. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve lost much of my savings in the past few months. I even went through a dress-rehearsal for our enforced austerity when my family home in Santa Barbara burned to the ground some years ago, leaving me with nothing but the toothbrush I bought from an all-night supermarket that night. And yet my two-room apartment in nowhere Japan seems more abundant than the big house that burned down. I have time to read the new John le Carre, while nibbling at sweet tangerines in the sun. When a Sigur Ros album comes out, it fills my days and nights, resplendent. And then it seems that happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies. In New York, a part of me was always somewhere else, thinking of what a simple life in Japan might be like. Now I’m there, I find that I almost never think of Rockefeller Center or Park Avenue at all.
~ Pico Iyer
“Silence, Please.” No one expected that such a plain, nondescript phrase would be used by the government of Finland to promote their country.
It was in March, 2010 when a group of 100 marketing experts met in Helsinki to brainstorm on how to attract tourists to Finland. Over drinks they discussed the various strengths of their country. The problem was Finland was known as a quiet country. Finland is also known for exceptional teachers, and an abundance of wild berries and mushrooms — not exactly compelling ideas to make a country a world-class tourist destination.
Then out of the blue someone said that quiet wasn’t such a bad thing after all. That set them to thinking.
A few months later, they came out with a “Country Brand Report.” It highlighted themes that could make Finland a preferred tourist destination. Among other things, it emphasized Finland’s renowned educational system and school of functional design. However, somewhat surprisingly, a brand new theme emerged from the report: silence. “Silence is a resource. In the future, people will be prepared to pay for the experience of silence,” the report stated.
A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board decided to put out a series of photographs of lone figures in Finland’s official travel site, with the caption “Silence, Please.” It is one of the most popular pages, and has proven to be the most popular theme in attracting tourists to Finland.
Why are people attracted to silence? Are there tangible effects of silence?
In 1859, Florence Nightingale wrote,”Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She observed that noise can be a source of distress, and loss of sleep for recovering patients. Surprisingly, she asserted that sudden noise can be a cause of death among sick children! Was she exaggerating?
Research proves that she was right. Chronic noise can cause high blood pressure. Increased levels of noise are linked to sleep loss and heart disease. In 2011, the World Health Organization concluded that 340 million residents of Western Europe annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It also asserted that 3,000 deaths was directly attributed to excessive noise.
Silence as a subject of scientific research only began to appear in 2006. Strangely, it was studied only accidentally.
The physician Luciano Bernardi started out by studying the physiological effects of music. He says, “We didn’t think about the effect of silence. That was not meant to be studied specifically.”
Bernardi observed two dozen subjects while they listened to six musical tracks. He found out that the effects of listening to music could be correlated with changes in blood pressure, carbon dioxide and circulation in the brain. It is not surprising that a physiological change is linked to a condition of physical arousal. This made sense since active listening requires alertness and attention.
But what surprised him was the drastic effect of the inserted stretches of silence between the musical tracks. The two-minute pauses proved more relaxing than listening to music!
Silence, which was considered irrelevant at the start of the research, became the main object of the study. What they concluded, is that silence seemed heightened by contrast, perhaps because it gave the subjects a release from paying attention to the music. “Perhaps the arousal is something that concentrates the mind in one direction, so that when there is nothing more arousing, then you have deeper relaxation,” he says.
Ever since Bernardi’s ground-breaking study, other neurological experiments have reinforced Bernardi’s key findings.
Noora Vikman is a consultant on silence for the government of Finland. She lives in the eastern part of Finland, a quiet and isolated place, surrounded by quiet lakes and forests. Standing in the Finnish wilderness, she strained her ears to pick out the faintest sounds of animals or wind. “It’s strange,” she says, “the way you change. You have all the power–you can break the silence with even with the smallest sounds. And then you don’t want to do it. You try to be as quiet as you can be.”
Note: This blog post is based on the article “This Is Your Brain on Silence” by Daniel A. Gross
The maker of a sentence launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Why use another writing software? Isn’t a word processor, like Microsoft Word, sufficient?
I, myself, have been using Microsoft Word for almost 25 years now for my writing… until 3 weeks ago.
While I was surfing the web, I read about Scrivener in a blog post. I was impressed, especially because many published authors recommended it. I downloaded the trial version, played around with it, and liked what I saw. In fact, it is without exaggeration that I say that I fell in love with Scrivener! A few days later I bought it. (Actually, I asked my wife, Jojang, to give it to me as my birthday present).
We can’t deny that word processors have revolutionized the way we write. But they have one major limitation: they assume that we work in a linear fashion. Basically, they assume that when we write, we know how our document will begin and end. Also, they assume that we will start from the beginning and continue through to the end. This may well be the case for short-form writing. But for long-form writing (novels, dissertations, manuals, legal briefs, research papers, essays, screenplays, etc.) — this is not the most effective way to go about it.
Enter Scrivener. Unlike your typical word processor, it makes writing, especially long-form writing, a much more manageable and enjoyable task.
By assuming that many of us write in a creative, non-linear fashion. For one thing, it doesn’t require us to know how our text will begin or end. For another, it doesn’t require us to write from beginning to end. In fact, we can start from anywhere we like. And here lies the power of Scrivener: we can divide our text into small manageable sections, and arrange and rearrange them as often as we like to, without leaving Scrivener. In the words of Erez Zuckerman, technology writer for PCWorld:
Scrivener revolves around a single concept: No matter how massive a text is, it’s invariably made up of smaller parts. A chapter isn’t as scary to write as a whole book; a single paragraph is even more approachable.
Here’s how it works.
Scrivener uses the “corkboard” metaphor to give a bird’s-eye view of what you’ve written. Each section of your document has an index card attached to it. Among other things, you can write a synopsis and monitor the status of each index card.
In the corkboard mode, you can rearrange the index cards around. This makes it easier to organize your text. Needless to say, each index card is associated with a written text, which can be created by using Scrivener’s built-in editor. Double-clicking the small rectangle at the left-hand corner of the index card will drill down to the text associated with it.
Personally, I don’t use Scrivener’s corkboard that much. If you’re like me, you’ll like the outliner mode for organizing your document. The concept is the same to that of the corkboard. Only this time, instead of moving around your index cards, you work with your outline to rearrange the sections of your document. Also, by double-clicking each outline heading you can drill down to the text associated with it.
The binder in Scrivener is what keeps all the parts of your document together. (You can find them in the section of your binder titled “Draft”). Entries in your binder are linked to the index cards or outline headings. What’s more, a feature that I love in Scrivener is a section in the binder appropriately titled “Research,” where you can put all your research material – documents, web pages, images, audio, video, etc. There’s no need anymore to switch between multiple applications to refer to your research files.
We’ve only covered the basics and barely scratched the surface. Scrivener still has a lot of features, and it can sometimes feel like an overwhelmingly complex writing software. But don’t let it overwhelm you. If you keep in mind the basics, you can be up and running in less than an hour, especially if you watch this introductory tutorial video, which covers all the main features of Scrivener:
By the way, Scrivener is available for both Mac and Windows computers.
Our redeemer is Scrivener… software that jibes with the way writers think. As its name makes plain, Scrivener takes our side; it roots for the writer and not for the final product… The happy, broad-minded, process-friendly Scrivener software encourages note-taking and outlining and restructuring and promises all the exhilaration of a productive desk… Scrivener, then, is one of us, at home in the writer’s jumpy emotional and procedural universe.
A brilliant, flexible package for serious writers, which helps manage the creative process from start to finish; it’s great value too.
I’ve dumped Microsoft Word in favour of a hit cult app called Scrivener… Scrivener is a shrewd collection of tools that everyone will appreciate equally, but exploit differently. It’s the perfect word processor for people like me, who write weekly and monthly columns for a variety of publications and websites. To a pal of mine, it’s the perfect word processor for writing a very complicated science-fiction novel in which a large cast engages in complicated schedules and agendas that all have to be tracked and coordinated with each other through the story. To another, it’s the perfect tool for writing comic-book scripts. You see, Scrivener isn’t an oddball niche ‘alternative’ product. It’s poised to start a genuine revolution.
[Scrivener] is simply an awesome, awesome, really awesome program. No kidding, I wrote ‘Organizing Creativity’ with it, which was over 400 pages long, had 138,105 words and 785,500 characters, and it was still very easy to find the thread or specific spots where I wanted to change something… when it comes to actual writing, Scrivener is just the reigning and undefeated champion.
A video that will inspire you to think more deeply about your place in the universe.
Space. Patches of complete black, void of light. We see nothing. And yet, our species peers more deeply and seeks for what it cannot see. Our curiosity is a springboard, a launching pad for that leap of faith into the unknown.
So, what did we do. We committed, and we pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at one of those dark patches in 1996. The result: one of the most important images ever taken. Where we saw nothing, there were galaxies — more than 3,000 of them. And when we looked more deeply, our field of view expanded to more than 100 billion galaxies.
Our vision of ourselves is forever changed now. The unfathomable depth of the universe adds to our sense of awe and wonder. We derive new meaning from the expanding context ushered forth by these Hubble images. The questions about the intersection of science and religion are changing, and the soil is richer and more fertile than ever before for making sense of our place in it all.
~ Trent Gilliss
For the last 17 years I have had the privilege of living and working alongside the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, South Carolina as a frequent monastic guest. And I always enjoyed Father Leonard’s fiery homilies at Mass; not just for their erudition, but for his keen insights into human nature as well. Though, as an African-American native of Charleston, SC, how he came to be a Catholic priest and monk in a monastery hemmed in by so many congregations of African-American Baptists remains a mystery.
When I first met Father Leonard in 1996, he was still a monastic youngster of 65 or so spending his days on his knees prayerfully scrubbing the monastery’s floors. And though the sweat dripping from his headband in the blistering heat of a South Carolina summer made it seem more like a crown of thorns than a halo, every time I happened by he would lean on his brush, wave, and speed me on my way with a smile so full of genuine joy that it never failed to lighten my step.
Eventually, Parkinson’s, vascular disease, and an assortment of other maladies took their toll. Father Leonard could no longer scrub floors or say Mass, and when propping his legs up on a pillow resting on his desk could no longer alleviate the pain, he even had to stop answering Mepkin’s phone. Only the luminous joy remained: a joy that despite their best efforts his painful infirmities only seemed to manage to magnify.
Eight years ago I was spending a few weeks over Christmas at Mepkin. My father had died a year earlier and this was my first Christmas without him. One day I stopped by the deserted monastic kitchen on my way back from work for a cup of tea. As I stood in front of the hot water dispenser watching my slowly twirling tea bag gradually dissolve, a hand firmly gripped my elbow. I tried to turn but the grip tightened freezing me in place.
“Don’t you think for one minute that we’ve forgotten you, your father, and your family,” a voice urgently whispered into my ear. “We pray for you every day.”
It was Father Leonard, but before I could catch my breath his silver walker and black hooded head were already inching away.
* * *
Father Leonard peacefully passed away a few years ago, but he lives on in my memory as the beau ideal — not only of a Trappist monk and human being — but of the secret to Trappist business success as well. For over 1,000 years Trappist monasteries have run some of the world’s most successful businesses. These businesses, often built on prosaic products like mushrooms and eggs, have been so successful in fact that a recent article rather boldly argued that capitalism itself should be credited, not to Adam Smith, but to Trappist monks instead.
But what distinguishes the Trappist business philosophy from most of its secular competition is that very same spirit of service and selflessness toward others that Father Leonard epitomized so well. Every great salesman knows that the more he forgets himself, his product, his quota, and his commissions and instead relentlessly focuses on serving his customer’s needs, the more sales he makes. The commissions take care of themselves. When an entire corporation focuses on delighting customers, profits take care of themselves as well. And as every great leader knows, the more he focuses on making other people successful, the more successful he becomes.
I have been in business for over 35 years: First as a salesman and later as an executive and entrepreneur. Over that time I have seen a gradual transformation in the philosophy of business from a model based purely on the competitive zero sum game of win/lose toward a more cooperative service oriented model based on win/win. But while books espousing such a philosophy now appear like clockwork, unlike Father Leonard and his fellow monks, all too often all we have to show for it is lip service rather than the concrete behavioral changes that are essential to success. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet ruefully opined about the manners of his fellow Danes, selfless service is usually honored more in the breach than in the observance.
Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and one of the founders of the IBM Executive School back in 1956, was an early secular pioneer in this trend toward a service oriented business model. And one of his most critical discoveries was that building a corporate culture based on selfless service requires what he called a “transformation in consciousness” or what the monks might call a “radical change of heart” in IBM’s executives. As a result Mobley abandoned the “skills and knowledge” based “training” curriculum of the IBM Executive School and refocused his efforts on transforming the “values and attitudes” of his students instead. And as a result IBM became the most successful and admired corporation in the world in the 1960s and 70s.
It was his longing for this transformation from selfishness to selflessness that sent Father Leonard to the monastery so many years ago. This longing is the urge to transformation, and it produces the kind of “change of heart” or essential “change of being” that remade Father Leonard into someone who had so completely forgotten himself and his suffering that he recalled a man he had never met by silently reading my heart. And if, like the monks, we want to see the business, professional, and personal benefits that only a spirit of selfless service can bring, we must commit, both collectively and individually, to transforming ourselves as well.
~ August Turak
I was wrong.
One year ago I left the internet. I thought it was making me unproductive. I thought it lacked meaning. I thought it was “corrupting my soul.”
It’s a been a year now since I “surfed the web” or “checked my email” or “liked” anything with a figurative rather than literal thumbs up. I’ve managed to stay disconnected, just like I planned. I’m internet free.
And now I’m supposed to tell you how it solved all my problems. I’m supposed to be enlightened. I’m supposed to be more “real,” now. More perfect.
But instead it’s 8PM and I just woke up. I slept all day, woke with eight voicemails on my phone from friends and coworkers. I went to my coffee shop to consume dinner, the Knicks game, my two newspapers, and a copy of The New Yorker. And now I’m watching Toy Story while I glance occasionally at the blinking cursor in this text document, willing it to write itself, willing it to generate the epiphanies my life has failed to produce.
I didn’t want to meet this Paul at the tail end of my yearlong journey.
In early 2012 I was 26 years old and burnt out. I wanted a break from modern life — the hamster wheel of an email inbox, the constant flood of WWW information which drowned out my sanity. I wanted to escape.
I thought the internet might be an unnatural state for us humans, or at least for me. Maybe I was too ADD to handle it, or too impulsive to restrain my usage. I’d used the internet constantly since I was twelve, and as my livelihood since I was fourteen. I’d gone from paperboy, to web designer, to technology writer in under a decade. I didn’t know myself apart from a sense of ubiquitous connection and endless information. I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser.
My plan was to quit my job, move home with my parents, read books, write books, and wallow in my spare time. In one glorious gesture I’d outdo all quarter-life crises to come before me. I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.
My goal would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years
But for some reason, The Verge wanted to pay me to leave the internet. I could stay in New York and share my findings with the world, beam missives about my internet-free life to the citizens of the internet I’d left behind, sprinkle wisdom on them from my high tower.
My goal, as a technology writer, would be to discover what the internet had done to me over the years. To understand the internet by studying it “at a distance.” I wouldn’t just become a better human, I would help us all to become better humans. Once we understood the ways in which the internet was corrupting us, we could finally fight back.
At 11:59PM on April 30th, 2012, I unplugged my Ethernet cable, shut off my Wi-Fi, and swapped my smartphone for a dumb one. It felt really good. I felt free.
A couple weeks later, I found myself among 60,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews, pouring into New York’s Citi Field to learn from the world’s most respected rabbis about the dangers of the internet. Naturally. Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”
This was going to be amazing.
I dreamed a dream
And everything started out great, let me tell you. I did stop and smell the flowers. My life was full of serendipitous events: real life meetings, frisbee, bike rides, and Greek literature. With no clear idea how I did it, I wrote half my novel, and turned in an essay nearly every week to The Verge. In one of the early months my boss expressed slight frustration at how much I was writing, which has never happened before and never happened since.
I lost 15 pounds without really trying. I bought some new clothes. People kept telling me how good I looked, how happy I seemed. In one session, my therapist literally patted himself on the back.
I was a little bored, a little lonely, but I found it a wonderful change of pace. I wrote in August, “It’s the boredom and lack of stimulation that drives me to do things I really care about, like writing and spending time with others.” I was pretty sure I had it all figured out, and told everyone as much.
As my head uncluttered, my attention span expanded. In my first month or two, 10 pages of The Odyssey was a slog. Now I can read 100 pages in a sitting, or, if the prose is easy and I’m really enthralled, a few hundred.
I learned to appreciate an idea that can’t be summed up in a blog post, but instead needs a novel-length exposition. By pulling away from the echo chamber of internet culture, I found my ideas branching out in new directions. I felt different, and a little eccentric, and I liked it.
Without the retreat of a smartphone, I was forced to come out of my shell in difficult social situations. Without constant distraction, I found I was more aware of others in the moment. I couldn’t have all my interactions on Twitter anymore; I had to find them in real life. My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I’m half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I’m less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
Additionally, and I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but I cried during Les Miserables.
It seemed then, in those first few months, that my hypothesis was right. The internet had held me back from my true self, the better Paul. I had pulled the plug and found the light.
Back to reality
When I left the internet I expected my journal entries to be something like, “I used a paper map today and it was hilarious!” or “Paper books? What are these!?” or “Does anyone have an offline copy of Wikipedia I can borrow?” That didn’t happen.
For the most part, the practical aspects of this year passed by with little notice. I have no trouble navigating New York by feel, and I buy paper maps to get around other places. It turns out paper books are really great. I don’t comparison shop to buy plane tickets, I just call Delta and take what they offer.
In fact, most things I was learning could be realized with or without an internet connection — you don’t need to go on a yearlong internet fast to realize your sister has feelings.
But one big change was snail mail. I got a PO Box this year, and I can’t tell you how much of a joy it was to see the box stuffed with letters from readers. It’s something tangible, and something hard to simulate with an e-card.
In neatly spaced, precisely adorable lettering, one girl wrote on a physical piece of paper: “Thank you for leaving the internet.” Not as an insult, but as a compliment. That letter meant the world to me.
But then I felt bad, because I never wrote back.
And then, for some reason, even going to the post office sounded like work. I began to dread the letters and almost resent them.
As it turned out, a dozen letters a week could prove to be as overwhelming as a hundred emails a day. And that was the way it went in most aspects of my life. A good book took motivation to read, whether I had the internet as an alternative or not. Leaving the house to hang out with people took just as much courage as it ever did.
By late 2012, I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.
A year in, I don’t ride my bike so much. My frisbee gathers dust. Most weeks I don’t go out with people even once. My favorite place is the couch. I prop my feet up on the coffee table, play a video game, and listen to an audiobook. I pick a mindless game, like Borderlands 2 or Skate 3, and absently thumb the sticks through the game-world while my mind rests on the audiobook, or maybe just on nothing.
People who need people
So the moral choices aren’t very different without the internet. The practical things like maps and offline shopping aren’t hard to get used to. People are still glad to point you in the right direction. But without the internet, it’s certainly harder to find people. It’s harder to make a phone call than to send an email. It’s easier to text, or SnapChat, or FaceTime, than drop by someone’s house. Not that these obstacles can’t be overcome. I did overcome them at first, but it didn’t last.
It’s hard to say exactly what changed. I guess those first months felt so good because I felt the absence of the pressures of the internet. My freedom felt tangible. But when I stopped seeing my life in the context of “I don’t use the internet,” the offline existence became mundane, and the worst sides of myself began to emerge.
I would stay at home for days at a time. My phone would die, and nobody could get ahold of me. At some point my parents would get fed up with wondering if I was alive, and send my sister over to my apartment to check on me. On the internet it was easy to assure people I was alive and sane, easy to collaborate with my coworkers, easy to be a relevant part of society.
So much ink has been spilled deriding the false concept of a “Facebook friend,” but I can tell you that a “Facebook friend” is better than nothing.
My best long-distance friend, one I’d talked to weekly on the phone for years, moved to China this year and I haven’t spoken to him since. My best New York friend simply faded into his work, as I failed to keep up my end of our social plans.
I fell out of sync with the flow of life.
there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality
This March I went to, ironically, a conference in New York called “Theorizing the Web.” It was full of post-grad types presenting complicated papers about the definition of reality and what feminism looks like in a post-digital age, and things like that. At first I was a little smug, because I felt like they were dealing with mere theories, theories that assumed the internet was in everything, while I myself was experiencing a life apart.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
A couple weeks ago I was in Colorado to see my brother before he deployed to Qatar with the Air Force. He has a new baby, a five-month-old chubster named Kacia, who I’d only seen in photos mercifully snail mailed by my sister-in-law.
I got to spend one day with my brother, and the next morning I went with him to the airport. I watched dumbfounded as he kissed his wife and kids goodbye. It didn’t seem fair that he should have to go. He’s a hero to these kids, and I hated for them to lose him for six months.
My coworkers Jordan and Stephen met me in Colorado to embark on a road trip back to New York. The idea was to wrap up my year with a little documentary, and spend the hours in the car coming to terms with what had just happened and what might come next.
I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline
Before we left, I spent a little more time with the kids, doing my best to be a help to my sister-in-law, doing my best to be a super uncle. And then we had to go.
On the road, Jordan and Stephen asked me questions about myself. “Do you think you’re too hard on yourself?” Yes. “Was this year successful?” No. “What do you want to do when you get back on the internet?” I want to do things for other people.
We stopped in Huntington, West Virginia to meet a hero of mine, Polygon‘s Justin McElroy. I met with Nathan Jurgenson in Washington DC. I thought hard about whether I could succeed online where I’d failed offline. I asked for tips.
What I do know is that I can’t blame the internet, or any circumstance, for my problems. I have many of the same priorities I had before I left the internet: family, friends, work, learning. And I have no guarantee I’ll stick with them when I get back on the internet — I probably won’t, to be honest. But at least I’ll know that it’s not the internet’s fault. I’ll know who’s responsible, and who can fix it.
Late Tuesday night, the last night of the trip, we stopped across the river from NY to get “the shot” from New Jersey of the Manhattan skyline. It was a cold, clear night, and I leaned against the rickety riverside railing and tried to strike a casual pose for the camera. I was so close to New York, so close to being done. I longed for the comfortable solitude of my apartment, and yet dreaded the return to isolation.
In two weeks I’d be back on the internet. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was giving up once again. But I knew the internet was where I belonged.
12:00AM, May 1st, 2013
I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.
the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other
My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She’d never heard of “the internet,” but she’s huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she’d wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had.
“I thought it was because you didn’t want to,” she said.
With tears in my eyes, I drew her a picture of what the internet is. It was computers and phones and televisions, with little lines connecting them. Those lines are the internet. I showed her my computer, drew a line to it, and erased that line.
“I spent a year without using any internet,” I told her. “But now I’m coming back and I can Skype with you again.”
When I return to the internet, I might not use it well. I might waste time, or get distracted, or click on all the wrong links. I won’t have as much time to read or introspect or write the great American sci-fi novel.
But at least I’ll be connected.
~ Paul Miller
The tributes to Dennis Ritchie won’t match the river of praise that spilled out over the web after the death of Steve Jobs. But they should.
And then some.
“When Steve Jobs died last week, there was a huge outcry, and that was very moving and justified. But Dennis had a bigger effect, and the public doesn’t even know who he is,” says Rob Pike, the programming legend and current Googler who spent 20 years working across the hall from Ritchie at the famed Bell Labs.
On Wednesday evening, with a post to Google+, Pike announced that Ritchie had died at his home in New Jersey over the weekend after a long illness, and though the response from hardcore techies was immense, the collective eulogy from the web at large doesn’t quite do justice to Ritchie’s sweeping influence on the modern world. Dennis Ritchie is the father of the C programming language, and with fellow Bell Labs researcher Ken Thompson, he used C to build UNIX, the operating system that so much of the world is built on — including the Apple empire overseen by Steve Jobs.
“Pretty much everything on the web uses those two things: C and UNIX,” Pike tells Wired. “The browsers are written in C. The UNIX kernel — that pretty much the entire Internet runs on — is written in C. Web servers are written in C, and if they’re not, they’re written in Java or C++, which are C derivatives, or Python or Ruby, which are implemented in C. And all of the network hardware running these programs I can almost guarantee were written in C.
“It’s really hard to overstate how much of the modern information economy is built on the work Dennis did.”
Even Windows was once written in C, he adds, and UNIX underpins both Mac OS X, Apple’s desktop operating system, and iOS, which runs the iPhone and the iPad. “Jobs was the king of the visible, and Ritchie is the king of what is largely invisible,” says Martin Rinard, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and a member of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“Jobs’ genius is that he builds these products that people really like to use because he has taste and can build things that people really find compelling. Ritchie built things that technologists were able to use to build core infrastructure that people don’t necessarily see much anymore, but they use everyday.”
From B to C
Dennis Ritchie built C because he and Ken Thompson needed a better way to build UNIX. The original UNIX kernel was written in assembly language, but they soon decided they needed a “higher level” language, something that would give them more control over all the data that spanned the OS. Around 1970, they tried building a second version with Fortran, but this didn’t quite cut it, and Ritchie proposed a new language based on a Thompson creation known as B.
Depending on which legend you believe, B was named either for Thompson’s wife Bonnie or BCPL, a language developed at Cambridge in the mid-60s. Whatever the case, B begat C.
B was an interpreted language — meaning it was executed by an intermediate piece of software running atop a CPU — but C was a compiled language. It was translated into machine code, and then directly executed on the CPU. But in those days, C was considered a high-level language. It would give Ritchie and Thompson the flexibility they needed, but at the same time, it would be fast.
That first version of the language wasn’t all that different from C as we know it today — though it was a tad simpler. It offered full data structures and “types” for defining variables, and this is what Richie and Thompson used to build their new UNIX kernel. “They built C to write a program,” says Pike, who would join Bell Labs 10 years later. “And the program they wanted to write was the UNIX kernel.”
Ritchie’s running joke was that C had “the power of assembly language and the convenience of … assembly language.” In other words, he acknowledged that C was a less-than-gorgeous creation that still ran very close to the hardware. Today, it’s considered a low-level language, not high. But Ritchie’s joke didn’t quite do justice to the new language. In offering true data structures, it operated at a level that was just high enough.
“When you’re writing a large program — and that’s what UNIX was — you have to manage the interactions between all sorts of different components: all the users, the file system, the disks, the program execution, and in order to manage that effectively, you need to have a good representation of the information you’re working with. That’s what we call data structures,” Pike says.
“To write a kernel without a data structure and have it be as consist and graceful as UNIX would have been a much, much harder challenge. They needed a way to group all that data together, and they didn’t have that with Fortran.”
At the time, it was an unusual way to write an operating system, and this is what allowed Ritchie and Thompson to eventually imagine porting the OS to other platforms, which they did in the late 70s. “That opened the floodgates for UNIX running everywhere,” Pike says. “It was all made possible by C.”
Apple, Microsoft, and Beyond
At the same time, C forged its own way in the world, moving from Bell Labs to the world’s universities and to Microsoft, the breakout software company of the 1980s. “The development of the C programming language was a huge step forward and was the right middle ground … C struck exactly the right balance, to let you write at a high level and be much more productive, but when you needed to, you could control exactly what happened,” says Bill Dally, chief scientist of NVIDIA and Bell Professor of Engineering at Stanford. “[It] set the tone for the way that programming was done for several decades.”
As Pike points out, the data structures that Richie built into C eventually gave rise to the object-oriented paradigm used by modern languages such as C++ and Java.
The revolution began in 1973, when Ritchie published his research paper on the language, and five years later, he and colleague Brian Kernighan released the definitive C book: The C Programming Language. Kernighan had written the early tutorials for the language, and at some point, he “twisted Dennis’ arm” into writing a book with him.
Pike read the book while still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, picking it up one afternoon while heading home for a sick day. “That reference manual is a model of clarity and readability compared to latter manuals. It is justifiably a classic,” he says. “I read it while sick in bed, and it made me forget that I was sick.”
Like many university students, Pike had already started using the language. It had spread across college campuses because Bell Labs started giving away the UNIX source code. Among so many other things, the operating system gave rise to the modern open source movement. Pike isn’t overstating it when says the influence of Ritchie’s work can’t be overstated, and though Ritchie received the Turing Award in 1983 and the National Medal of Technology in 1998, he still hasn’t gotten his due.
As Kernighan and Pike describe him, Ritchie was an unusually private person. “I worked across the hall from him for more than 20 years, and yet I feel like a don’t knew him all that well,” Pike says. But this doesn’t quite explain his low profile. Steve Jobs was a private person, but his insistence on privacy only fueled the cult of personality that surrounded him.
Ritchie lived in a very different time and worked in a very different environment than someone like Jobs. It only makes sense that he wouldn’t get his due. But those who matter understand the mark he left. “There’s that line from Newton about standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Kernighan. “We’re all standing on Dennis’ shoulders.”
~Cade Metz, WIRED