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OAKLAND, Calif. — Hop on a train or bus in any major city these days and you’ll no doubt see people staring at their phones. Where once it might have been a book or an empty gaze, phones have become the object of public transport riders’ attentions through games, reading, tweets, emails, and what have you. The ubiquity of connection has garnered a faster-paced web, a 24/7 cycle that ends only when we set our phones down on our beds and sleep briefly before picking them up again the moment we wake up.
Catching my attention recently has been the Cybernetic Meadow Collection, a series of design objects developed by The Consortium for Slower Internet. One product, a wifi router, doubles a potted plant, with the black antennae sprouting out alongside a plant of your choice. It’s a decidedly opposite from the minimalism propounded by all-white/all-silver Apple products, which would blend easily in a spare design studio or gallery and few other places. And then there are “heirloom jpegs,” little more than a holder for printed photos.
My favorite is an iPhone dock that rests alongside a cactus planter. This arrangement presumably conditions the user to think a little more carefully before casually reaching over the charge or unplug the phone. Without mindfulness, you run the risk of grabbing a handful of cacti thorns instead. “Charging cable and plant not included,” the description reads, so I suppose you could always replace the cactus with something fluffier.
According to a statement of principles written by founder Sam Kronick, “There is no inherent concern with information that is transmitted and distributed with great speed, but Slower Internet suggests that information be consumed at a more contemplative pace.” With such an overflow of information available everyday, I think we can agree that it would be nice to take a breather every now and then.
The movement for a slower internet has been going on for a while, and it’s picking up steam … slowly. A CNET article as early as 2008 called for a slow internet as “the next green trend,” since a slower internet connection means greater energy efficiency. The Slow Web Movement has a Github repo, but it’s not had any changes for about a year. And on April 1, 2011, NPR famously reported on hipster internet cafes that provided deliberately slow internet access for patrons.
A recent article in The Daily Dot described why we “badly need a slower Internet“:
Part of the growing distaste for this glossy tabloid-esque culture of snippets is that we are aware of how different it can be, and in fact how it once was. We suddenly seem to have a burning nostalgia for the way the web once was: a quiet conversation, a corner you would retreat to at the end of the day (or in the middle of it) to hear a funny story, told to a select few, heard, appreciated, and often related to a few more, like small-town gossip at the barber shop.
Which is all well and good, but the author Zan McQuade, then goes on to compare the internet of today to “Times Square,” which all the glitz, glam, and lack of substance that such a comparison suggests.
And there’s where the either/or dichotomy of this discussion seems to fall apart. Like a city, we have our Times Squares, but also have our Central Parks. We have the hustle and bustle of the subway at rush hour and the ghost emptiness of a train at 3 in the morning. A movement for a slower internet is like a movement for a slower city — we can control the type of city we live in and the people we interact with.
But that’s why I keep going back to the Cybernetic Meadow. Although they’re produced by The Consortium for Slower Internet, they don’t slow anything down, really. The wifi router moves just as fast, and the iPhone can still process data at 4G speeds. We can contemplate the plant or we can answer an email. We could even do both at the same time. The internet is only as fast or slow as we want it to be.
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