First Click: Augmenting nature one plug at a time

August 24th, 2016


It’s Wilderness Week at The Verge as we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the US National Park Service. It’s a good time to reflect upon your own relationship with nature, the mother of all inventions.

Being outdoors has always been an escape for me, a respite from the aggressive pace and mind-numbing din of the big international cities I’ve called home. When I was younger, I’d get away to the mountains, spending weekends backpacking or bombing the asphalt switchbacks on a motorbike. Now the surf is my getaway. But never have my escapes been a protest against progress like Ted Kaczynski’s, or an attempt to Simplify! Simplify! like the two years two months and two days that Henry David Thoreau spent around the shores of Walden Pond. I do share Thoreau’s urging to minimize distractions and to focus on what’s real.

You might go to the wilds to “switch off,” to “unplug.” It’s the thing we’re supposed to do. Not me — I enjoy the benefits of technology everywhere. So, let’s call my societal retreats Walden 2.0.

The line separating work and life has become sufficiently blurred over the years such that it’s now nearly invisible for some. I’m fortunate that I can work from pretty much anywhere as long as I’ve got my laptop and a reasonably fast internet connection. That could be a bad thing since I enjoy my job — I have to actively monitor my time and priorities to avoid overworking. But mostly it’s good: I’m writing this from a tiny surf shack where I’ve spent most of the summer. It’s roughly the same size as Thoreau’s 10-foot by 15-foot cottage, but it’s on a beach at the edge of a roiling sea, not a pond. I’ve also got company, sharing this tiny home with my wife, three kids who are on summer holiday, and any number of guests who might pass through. And unlike Thoreau’s approach to living with only the absolute essentials, my home is packed to the gills with a bevy of non-essential gadgets.

"Your ability to automate nature is mildly disturbing," joked my friend and colleague Vlad Savov after I described my setup. I laughed because I’m unapologetic about my conspicuous use of electronics here, despite their incongruity with my surroundings. It’s true, people do sometimes look strangely at me and the long orange extension cord snaking through the sand to the rotisserie motor on my grill. But these are the same looks I get when I project a film onto the side of the beach house for the "neighborhood" kids to enjoy. I’m used to it now, because I’m also the guy who sometimes, but not always, sits outside at sunset with a DSLR capturing a time-lapse to share with friends. I’m the guy who grabs 360-degree video of my kids playing jeu de boule to share with family. I’m the guy wearing Bluetooth earbuds as he runs through the dunes, uses a GPS-enabled smartwatch to track his kite surfing runs, and has a webcam mounted to his house to monitor the swells.

I’ve had a few hippies tell me that I’m doing my vacation "wrong" when they see me lounging on the shore with my laptop. How quickly their arrogance fades when I respond, "Actually, I’m working — this is my office today."

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately," wrote Thoreau famously in Walden. I’m at the beach for the same reason. But I try to apply the same degree of mindfulness, or whatever you want to call it, whether I’m at the sea, the woods, or in the city; working or playing. Time is limited and I’m acutely aware of my limited opportunities "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."

The key, as always, is to find balance, to use technology as a tool to augment nature, not usurp it. As Thoreau’s mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson was fond of saying, "Moderation in all things" — a 19th century riff on Hesiodic musings that’s still relevant today.

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