Untethered, for reals

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I left for China the day after my 54th birthday. I’d wanted to visit China since I was in my 20s. Do you know what it’s like to look forward to something for most of your life and then finally get to do it? It’s a lot of excitement mixed in with a whole bunch of apprehension.

Part of the apprehension was related to my decision to travel off the data hook. It was a crazy feeling to turn over my data aggregator/tracking device to my wife and march down the security screening gangplank completely untethered. I would be lying if I said that something akin to panic hadn’t set in. But do you know what immediately followed the queasiness?

Freedom.

For the first time in some incredible number of years I felt free, no thoughts about last minute messages or emails or voicemails, and the bare knowledge that whatever happened from then on was going to depend on me, not the globe and Library of Congress that I had in my pocket, ever ready to answer any question, resolve any crisis, allay any worry, comfort any loneliness. Oh, and convert any exchange rate.

That feeling of freedom was followed by amazement and pity, amazement at the fact that alone among the several hundred people waiting to be screened, I was the only one not looking at a phone or holding one. The pity? Realizing that every single person in that line was chained to their data aggregator/tracking device and would never know, until death, what it was like to walk off into the wild without being chained to an integrated house arrest monitoring unit and algorithm generated dopamine stimulator.

And of course going to China was hardly off into any kind of wild. It was a seven-day lark to the most populous place on earth, a country more advanced and connected in computer technology than any other, and a place whose wildness was discovered and brought to heel more than five thousand years ago. The fact that a very brief respite from my data aggregator/tracking device felt like a daring excursion to the edge of the solar system says everything about how captivated I had become, and nothing about the relative adventurousness of the trip.

In addition to the wonderful sensation of standing in a screening line feeling fully engaged was the realization that untethering had also allowed me to pack light. No laptop, no charging devices, no fear of having my phone stolen, and of course no concern about battery life or where to plug in my paper notebook, or where to recharge my pen. My reading wouldn’t be tied to a screen but to paper. My writing wouldn’t be done with a keyboard, but with ink.

In no time at all I began to think differently, as every moment wasn’t being chopped into attention-destroying snippets of phone gazing. What was even more enjoyable was the way my eyes began to look around and really observe people. With no data aggregator/tracking device to distract me, I could watch continuously and leisurely, remember what people looked like and what they were wearing, and try to eavesdrop on their conversations. The amount of information about the real world that we miss by the distractions of a data aggregator/tracking device is extraordinary, and it’s clear that the real question isn’t whether it was good to leave the damned thing behind, but rather what in the hell I would do with it when I got back?

Here were a few random notes about my flight on Sichuan Air:

  1. New Airbus, clean and nice, and better in-flight service than any US carrier I’ve ever flown on.
  2. My seatmate was a U. of Washington grad student from China getting her Ph.D. in the interpretation and application of mass data, all in English of course. I’m 54 and learning how to say hello and ask where the toilet is in Chinese.
  3. The spicy chicken … two stars, ergo better than anything on any U.S. airline.
  4. Tiny seats, but I suppose the Roman galley banks were tinier, harder, and came with a lot more whipping.
  5. The in-flight magazine was a government propaganda piece.
  6. Watery tea.
  7. Did they have to disinfect us with cattle spray before landing?
  8. I had no electronic devices to turn off!
  9. 14 hours is a long-ass time.
  10. Boiled carrots for a tasty dessert snack. Who knew?
  11. This regional carrier is as good as any major US airline; China is coming for you, America.

END

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