The Paris Review: ‘Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction’

Whilst scrolling through Twitterrific on my iPhone recently, I stumbled upon the article Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction by Mairead Small Staid. The article is fantastic.

Based on Sven Birkerts’ work The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, the article details the ways in which long- and short-form writing (i.e. print vs. digital) not only affect the way that we read but also how we understand ourselves and the passing of time. As a person who works in digital communications, I certainly feel the inner conflict of having to engage with lots of short-form content but often wishing to sit down with a longer text like a book.

One part of Staid’s article particularly resonated with me:

I was born in 1988, two years before the development of HTML. I didn’t have a computer at home until middle school, didn’t have a cell phone until I was eighteen. I remember the pained beeping of a dial-up connection, if only faintly. Facebook launched as I finished up high school, and Twitter as I entered college. The golden hours of my childhood aligned perfectly with the fading light of a pre-internet world; I know intimately that such a world existed, and had its advantages.

Whilst I am a few years younger than Staid, I feel like my childhood also fell into a kind of in-between period. I was born in 1992 and my first computer was my family’s Power Macintosh, so I was born and raised in a time when the Internet was certainly present. I also remember the agony of waiting for webpages to load, with the dial-up modem blinking frantically in the corner.

There was no computer in my pocket or on my wrist; the only computer to which I had regular access was on a desk in the study. This highly specific physical context for computer use afforded time for me to explore other things and most importantly, read books.

Last year, I deleted my Facebook account, shut down other profiles, reduced the number of people whom I follow on Twitter and committed to writing and reading longer texts more often. This includes reading books and making an effort to maintain my Daily Ruminations here on Lounge Ruminator. They’re not super-long but they are certainly wordier than normal social media posts.

When I look at my own use of devices, I feel motivated to limit it because I remember a time when reading a computer was kind of like reading a book—you had to go to a different room and set the time aside from others.

If we want to declutter our digital lives and pick up a book, we need to do this consciously. Screen Time in iOS 12 is a great tool for this and if used properly, it can inform you about how you’re using apps and services and whether you need to cut back.

I love my iPhone and Apple Watch but I have significantly reduced the number of app notifications that I can receive. This has made a difference and I plan to continue improving my digital habits.

Daily Rumination No. 9: A Fresh Cup of #Caffeinespiration

Do you like coffee? I do. I wrote about it recently and the topic has already returned today. This time, it’s not about people’s love for instant coffee but the clichéd and mundane efforts that café owners undertake to decorate their establishments and create some sort of story about coffee.

Some time ago, café owners started displaying posters in their establishments that mock how dependent their customers are on caffeine. No doubt you’ve seen them before; they often look something like this…

The third image is the one that I’ve seen the most at various cafés. It’s kind of strange that we have come to accept these retro images as common memes in the physical world, simultaneously laughing with and at us as we waste our money daily on over-priced bean juice mixed with milk.

Someone clearly missed the memo on this style, however, as I spotted recently at a hotel while I was away for work. Check out the following image from the hotel’s café/restaurant.

I’m hoping that a staff member just made this quickly at home and didn’t pay any money for it. It isn’t funny and it was there each morning that I went for breakfast and coffee. It wasn’t a quote of the day; it was a permanent installation.

Along with my recent rumination into Australia’s overwhelming preference for instant coffee, this common display of useless #caffeinspirational quotes also suggests that we Australians are quite lacking in taste. It’s bourgeois in the extreme.

Surely there are some Australian café owners out there who are above this.

Daily Rumination No. 8: The Sad State of TV

I don’t watch traditional broadcast television very much anymore. Unless you’re talking about government-run channels like ABC and SBS, which show an interesting mix of multicultural programmes and news with great on-demand options, I’m not interested.

Naturally, the convenience of the Internet TV is a cause, however it’s also the fact that traditional TV has become progressively worse. Commercial stations are rubbish. Not only are there more reality shows than ever before—Married at First Sight is simply the worst—but advertisements are louder and more numerous and their news programmes have continued to pour in more sensationalism and infotainment. There seems to be a lot less quality control and a whole lot more laziness.

On the topic of rubbish commercial TV, whilst waiting for my flight at the airport, I looked up at the wall-mounted display and saw this…

What the Hell is this? Channel 9 has always had grotesquely large logos and crawlers, but in this case they went totally overboard with morning show Studio 10. Parts of the text are obscured and both the programme’s and channel’s logos are oversized. (If you look closely, you can also see the iTV logo at the top right, which was the original source… yay! Another logo!)

I should hardly be surprised but it perplexes me that in a time when Netflix, Amazon and others are taking over the world with Internet TV, traditional broadcasters don’t even seem to be making an effort. Of course, TV is not dead yet but it’s still bleeding viewers. Why do they do so much to ruin what was the defining mainstream experience for decades?

Traditional broadcasters need to reinvent themselves, improve their quality and find the essence of what makes traditional broadcasting or live TV special. As more and more big-budget productions go to the Web, these dinosaurs should be thinking long-term. Forget the conflict, drama, easy ads and reality shows; think about what audiences want.

Daily Rumination No. 7: McEquine

I’m not a huge fan of McDonald’s but whenever I’m visiting somewhere for the first time, if we happen to stop there for a quick meal, I like to check out how the menu differs.

Usually, you’ll only ever spot unusual things if you visit a different country. Two examples that spring to my mind are restaurants in Germany and Japan. When I was on student exchange in the German city of Freiburg, I visited McDonald’s in the Altstadt (old city), which unfortunately is built into a beautiful medieval gate called Martinstor (Martin’s Gate). It was there that I saw a McRib on the menu for the first time. ‘Fair enough then’, I thought. When in Tokyo, I saw what is arguably much more off-putting: the McHotdog. I don’t want to know what goes into that.

Whilst in Brisbane for work this week, I quickly ducked into a McDonald’s with a colleague. Being in Australia, everything was pretty much the same as back at home in Wollongong. Although I did spot something on the menu that I hadn’t seen before: the Bronco Burger.

Brisbane’s rugby league team is called the Brisbane Broncos, so naturally this is a bit of a cross-promotion to attract any fans walking in for a meal. It’s really just a regular-looking McDonald’s burger with a footy name.

I’m not sure that McDonald’s Australia has considered how such a name may be interpreted by any foreign tourists or people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. When they see the unfamiliar word ‘bronco’ and type it into the dictionary app on their iPhone, they’re going to think that McDonald’s has started to put horse meat in its burgers.

To be honest, considering how unhealthy the food is, I’m not sure that it would even matter. Who knows what actually finds its way into various food items there?

Perhaps we should embrace such a sporting homage and brand cross-promotion. Really, McDonald’s should just go all out and start naming burgers ‘McPhar Lap’ and the ‘Grand Angus Black Beauty’ and perhaps even change their cookies to ‘Seabiscuits’. I’m sure that they’d sell like hotcakes.

Daily Rumination No. 6: Instant Gratification

Australians (on the east coast, at least) generally pride themselves as simultaneously being super-cazj mass consumers and fine connoisseurs of Italian espresso. People here look upon Americans, for example, and spit upon their coffee taste (or lack thereof, for that matter).

When I worked in Sydney, I saw this caffeine-fuelled madness every morning, as corporate workaholics power-walked down the street, proudly displaying their takeaway cups. When I saw Jerry Seinfeld live in Sydney, he even took the time to point this out. He thought that he was surrounded by crazy people.

Working in the city and not joining the routine coffee break would generally be seen by many as bizarre, almost as much as not drinking alcohol whilst flipping steaks on a barbie. It’s just ‘un-Australian’.

Yet amongst all of this supposed devotion to espresso, in Australian supermarkets we are presented with messages like this for instant coffee…

The cosmopolitan coffee narrative in this country is a somewhat of a lie. I saw this Nescafé coffee stand in Coles today and was reminded of this article (and semi-ad for Lavazza) from 2016 in the Sydney Morning Herald, which detailed the myth of Australia’s coffee culture. It explains that whilst those in Sydney and Melbourne in particular see Australia as nation of coffee appreciators, rivalling top consumers elsewhere in the world, Australia is in fact in 42nd place! Hmmm…

Furthermore, author of the article, Mark Hawthorne, shared that ‘Almost 75 per cent of Australia’s coffee consumption is instant’ and also reported that Giuseppe Lavazza (of Luigi Lavazza S.p.A) still considers Australia to be an ‘immature market’.

Now this isn’t necessarily an issue. If people enjoy drinking instant coffee, who should really care? I like to drink coffee whether it’s instant, sitting for weeks in a percolator, pushed through an AeroPress by a man with a big moustache or blasted out of an espresso machine by a barista who was only employed because they had ‘barista experience’. As long as it’s hot, I’m generally happy.

What I find a concerning is the way that Australians, living in one of the most fortunate, multicultural nations on Earth, can be so narrow when it comes to food and beverage options. Like food and other beverages, coffee comes in so many interesting and exciting forms and yet we still happily hand over money for run-of-the mill dirt in a jar that gives us a quick fix. Surely it should be about taste (as the Nestlé ad suggests) and not just convenience.

Australians are willing to fall for Nestlé’s marketing campaign, which essentially marries the (global) Swiss brand with Australian identity and customs. I’d be willing to bet that many here even believe that Nescafé is an Australian brand or creation, or at least know that it isn’t but don’t really think about it. It’s like when people think that Holden and Ford are Australian, when they really traces back to the United States, or when Australians conveniently forget that Crowded House, Sam Neill and Russell Crowe are all from New Zealand.

The ABC programme Gruen even devoted an entire episode to the advertising and sale of instant coffee in Australia, pointing out that Nestlé and competing brands like Moccona rarely (if ever) show coffee in cups during their advertisements. It just doesn’t look good and instead Nestlé focuses on showing happy Aussies in various everyday situations, proudly brandishing a red Nescafé cup as the Sun rises in the background. I’m not sure how many Australian farmers are actually out on the dewy field each morning next to a tractor with an open ceramic cup of coffee (rather than a sealed flask), but to question such a thing may run the risk of being labelled un-Australian.

Too many people stick to old habits and accept narratives and marketing messages without ever asking ‘Why?’. The next time that you find yourself buying or doing something that has no inherent value or is sold as culturally normal, stop to think about it.

Daily Rumination No. 5: Hipster Bulbs

Hipster style continues to spread throughout Australian cafés and eateries, homogenising menus, decor and more. Where the egg was once king, avocado now rules supreme. Never has non-conformity been so mainstream.

In recent times, I’ve noticed the increasing installation of hipster ‘subway tiles’ as backdrops for café counters. Undoubtedly you’ve seen them before; they’re generally white with black grout, reminiscent of New York subway stations. Click here to view an example. In Australia, David Jones has even started using them in their in-store cafés and restaurants, elevating the horizontal tile to full-blown capitalist status.

Well, now there’s another new thing and I have decided to call it the ‘hipster bulb’. See the example in an image below, which my wife pointed out today.

This photo was taken in daytime and you can see quite clearly that the hanging light is surrounded by many more downlights above it, which whilst not as fashionable, offer vastly superior illumination.

So, in a room that has numerous windows (out of the frame) to allow natural light and also downlights for consistent indoor lighting, what is the purpose of this hipster bulb, with its space-encroaching shade and dangling cord? The only answer is wanky decoration.

You may ask why this is even worth consideration, let alone discussion on a blog. Whilst housed in attractive fixture and with a kind of industrial Edison chic, I argue that this hipster bulb contradicts the very values of pure ‘hipsterdom’. It’s there because it’s orange and interesting. To be a genuine hipster, one should shun that which is material and aim for only the bare essentials (which also often means being barefooted, unfortunately).

This hipster bulb is a useless extravagance to communicate the commercial brand of hipsterdom and is also, perhaps most importantly, a waste of energy. How can organic, gluten-free, vegan, renewable hipsters deal with this?

If you’re a hipster and you’re reading this now, I strongly encourage you to inspect the decor of your favourite coffee shop. If you see something that flies in the face of your all-natural, minimalist ideology, vote with your bare feet and have your single-origin latte with almond milk somewhere else.

Daily Rumination No. 4: Compound Modifiers

The hyphen is a punctuation mark that I think about fairly regularly and today was no exception. Many grammatical freaks fret about the misuse of semicolons and apostrophes—nearly all hope is lost for this mark for both possession and contraction—but the failure to use hyphens properly is perhaps even more worrisome.

Hyphens have a number of uses (including the connection of split words over lines in texts with full justification) and are not to be confused with em and en dashes. The particular usage that I wish to discuss now is for compound modifiers. Such modifiers consist of more than one word, which when combined by a hyphen, act as a joint adjective for a noun that follows. You can read a number of examples in my little picture at the top but here’s another one: ‘hairy-nosed wombat’. Which kind of wombat is it? It’s a hairy-nosed one.

The topic of the hyphen popped into my head whilst I was shopping at Aldi this morning with my wife, Natasha. As I looked around, I noticed multiple examples of missing hyphens, where they should been included to form compound modifiers. I decided to photograph and include some of them in today’s Daily Rumination.

Whilst all the signs that I shot are comprehensible without hyphens, they take on a different literal meaning. The strength of the hyphen is its ability to clarify what is being presented. Check out the examples.

Without hyphens to make ‘free-range’ and ‘cage-free’, this sign is ordering us to free the ‘range eggs’ and cage the ‘free eggs’. I’m not sure what the different is between a ‘range egg’ and a ‘free egg’, although I’m disturbed that we’re liberating one and imprisoning the other. This is pure, meaningless discrimination.

This should say ‘long-life milk’, however we’re either being asked to long for ‘life milk’, which must be the opposite of ‘death milk’, or the milk on display is somehow formulated to help us to live longer lives.

In this case, without writing ‘Award-winning’, someone or something called ‘Award’ has been winning all the frozen goods and Aussie classics at Aldi.

Here, we see books that should be labelled as ‘Learn-to-Play-Music Books’. Why? It’s because that is the type of book. Instead, we are instructed that we should be learning how to play a ‘music book’. I assume that it’s a type of instrument but rustling pages is hardly going to fill a concert venue and reach the nosebleed section.

Last but not least, this should say ‘Light-up’ but it doesn’t. It’s either telling us to set fire to the keyboard or the keyboard is encouraged to smoke a cigarette.

I think that it’s time for me to drop this topic; you get the point. The next time that you go shopping or out for a walk, rather than just looking for misplaced apostrophes, think about the poor hyphen too. It needs our help.