I think I must have been eleven, and my entire family — Dad, Mom, three little sisters and one little brother — were cramped and sweating in our beat up blue Toyota minivan, tan vinyl seats and panels and blue painted steel everywhere the vinyl wasn’t. We were on the 8-10 hour drive from Bangladesh’s capital city, Dhaka, to its main port (and our home), Chittagong. The highway was a single lane of pock-marked pavement with a yard or two of dirt shoulder on either side, and then a deep, swift drop-off to the water-logged rice-paddies that filled the floodplains ten feet below.
I sat in the front seat, next to my dad, and could see the rising water through a small hole in the blue metal floor. This was monsoon season, when every year about two thirds of the country are submerged in water. Today, that two thirds included the stretch of highway ahead of us. It was hard to tell whether the highway had eroded down to meet the water, or the water had risen to meet the highway, but either way, for the few hundred metres in front of us, there was nothing but the muddy calm of floodwaters. There was no way to tell where the roadway’s steep edges were, but we had to cross and get home, and since there wasn’t much current, other cars were crossing, with passengers getting out to walk ahead and around the cars to test the road as they went.
Since I was the eldest son, my dad did something I’ll always thank him for. He asked me to get out and walk. As my knobby little lily-white knees waded out through the thick brown slurry, feeling out the edges of the road, I was filled with exhilaration by the unknown dangers in front of me, and proud of the responsibility I’d been given to guide my entire family to safety.
My parents showed a lot of bravery dragging their five young kids off to live in a country with a military dictatorship and Guinness-record poverty and corruption rates. I admired the guts it must have taken to stay there through a war where foreigners were targeted, and for not losing their cool when a house across the street was torched by a mob. I admired them for taking their five kids trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas for New Years, and to the Taj Mahal for Christmas, instead of sitting at home on a couch by the TV. Sometimes all we had to eat was rice and lentils (which I hated), and sometimes I couldn’t go outside because I was too much a target for kidnappers or lynch mobs. But though I might have complained about things at the time, looking back, it was worth it.
In 2008, I walked out into the hills and jungle forests of northern Nicaragua with friends, talking to coffee farmers, to workers in the fields, to coffee mill executives in the towns. AK-47s guarded plantation gates while corralled farm-workers slept stacked in tiny stalls like so many KFC chickens. Since coming back from there, I’ve slowly been working toward a goal to build a better way for people to buy coffee and understand the story and the real people behind their beans. Where as a teen I used to hack with ResEdit and Macromedia Director in the evenings building software for fun, I’m now hacking international trade systems.
My project at Ethical Coffee Chain may never amount to anything, but at least I’m still plunging forward. Many days I don’t leave my desk, but I’m risking more and reaching further than I would have in 10 trips to a resort in the Caribbean.
Looking at the best-seller lists on Amazon (or, preferably, the shelves your local bookstore, if it still exists), there’s a world of self-help out there for people struggling to make their lives better. It’s often said, both in and out of those books, that travel is a wonderful way to refresh yourself, to reset your habits, to rekindle energy and interest once you’re called back to the demands of “regular life”.
Though physically moving your body to another part of the world is a wonderful experience, not all of us can do it very much. Something around 95% of this planet’s population have never take an airplane ride, so if you can’t globe-trot, you’re in good company(1). (Some first worlders purposefully do this, in environmental and social solidarity with the large majority of the world.) But having travelled frequently for large portions of my life, and then having not travelled much through the years following high-school, I can tell you, it’s not the distance that makes the experience.
I’ve chosen to start thinking of travelling as more than “seeing the world”, and encompassing much more than “vacation”. Travel can be a mindset. The transformative effect of travel is mostly that it makes it easy for you to look outward and forward, exploring and welcoming the unknown — whether it’s on the other side of the ocean or someplace closer to home.
The benefits of travel might be found by hitting up that place in that corner of your hometown you always felt a bit leery of buying a drink in. Or maybe it’s in getting out of your comfortable habits/places and learning to code. It could be in corners of Wikipedia you never thought to look, or on Tor, or in random conversations with strangers on IRC. It’s in the little details of experiences and knowledge, both fantastic and mundane.
Travel is moving beyond yourself. In it, you can stop constantly worrying about what happened to you, or where you are headed in life, or who said what, and instead look into anywhere you’re not. What you do once your head is out of your habit bubble is your choice. My advice: look for your muddy floodwaters, and walk out into them, trusting that whether you lose your footing or not, you’ll still have gone, and given, and just maybe, you’ll find the other side wasn’t as far away as it seemed.
I’m a big advocate of the value of aged goods. A good patina on an old bowl, a wooden handle worn smooth by years of use, corners rounded off the edges of old bricks. But when I build a website, a few years on, it doesn’t have patina. It doesn’t become better with age. It might start to break in places if not maintained, as browsers and server software march onward. But could those time-induced rough edges ever be seen as pleasant? Will we ever have a digital equivalent to patina?
Sedentary, suck of stale air, stench. Dried up and old, in a corner, cobwebs between your limbs. Cough but there’s nothing moist in your lungs. Stuck in an armchair and you can’t get up. You’ve been there for years, for decades.
Or get up, walk out, and buy a ticket. Sit in a station, board at your gate, sit, sit, sit as you tumble tumble tumble through distance.
You’re somewhere new. You sense something new, you smell something new. You in a place full, full of people. Love, noise, stench. Cool breezes, hot breezes, hot, damp, sweat rolls under your shirt.
Bike down a street, rented as it is. Rented bike, rented place, rented time, rented tastes of a life you could’ve had with different ancestors or a different twist in the turn of decisions made or natural disasters laid. Potato famine notwithstanding, migrations or mitigations of legislation brought down from on colonial high, you look altogether beautiful tonight, oh place I don’t know.
Have you ever felt like if only you could back up far enough, get enough of a birds-eye view of everything in front of you, you could finally wrap it all inside your head?
I sit struggling to map out everything ahead of me and in-step with me — team members, goals, tasks, time zones, dates — and it becomes so much, and me so far inside it that I struggle to keep the overall picture in place.
Generals planning tactical moves in movies always have huge-ass maps with troops and strategic features spread out across them (moved around with billiard-cues, right?) What do we have? Trello. Google Docs. Google Maps?
Well, what if there were an app that let you play your everyday like a virtual world? Not a down-on-the-ground avatar chat room with your remote coworkers (I’ll stick to video-chat, thanks), but something more high-level? After all, those of us who are trying to change the world need to be able to visualize that world, right?
That’s why getting out of the office and moving across the land works to clear the head and make bigger goals more organizable and digestible. It’s a matter of perspective. And as I suggested before, I’ve found I get a bit of that world-shrinking sensation when I pan across Google Earth. So what if there were a way to get more altitude at our desks? What if you could open up an app and see an atlas of your team members, the tasks assigned, the ones still out there? What if you could zoom further up and outward to get back toward the bigger goals and milestones you’re pursuing? What if you could fly even further up into the stratosphere and find, in the very sky, your principles and priorities and vision, mapped out to remind yourself why it is you are mapping out the milestones below? What could this look like?
I’m tired of flat surfaces. Of stacks of cards, of yards of line-entries. They have their place, but there’s got to be more. Apps like Murally and Conceptboard are giving us a little more freedom to extrapolate, like a big ol’ whiteboard. But where’s my big ol’ tactical terrain model? Seems like translated to the digital space, that billiard-cue pushing around toys and strings on a map could get super awesome.
Get onto the map app of your choice. Zoom in/out to the point where you can see your entire city, and now, start panning to the side. Pan until you reach a place you’ve not been. Then pan beyond. Aim for something you think might be a fair distance.
You’ll notice that even though you’re pretty far “up in the air” if imagining your viewpoint as that of a bird flying overhead, in terms of the map app’s settings, you’re actually still pretty zoomed in, and as you pan, it takes much longer to get where you’re aiming for than you figured it would. Sometimes you’ll even get lost along the way and get tempted to zoom out to get a better frame of reference. (Try to resist the temptation.)
For me, I tried to pan to Newfoundland. I was trying to show my daughter how far away England was with a scale she’d understand, but we gave up long before I could make it across the Atlantic.
Along the way I noticed little towns I’d never even knew existed, riverways and coastlines, whole areas completely unfamiliar to even my longtime map-loving mind — and all this not really too far from places I’d often been. All this at my fingerstips for years past, and yet wholy unknown to me.
Our world has seemed to grow smaller, but mostly because we ignore the distances; view things through the macro lenses of wifi-enabled air travel, instant communications, just-in-time delivery logistics, and living in-doors, where a bleak rolling thunder in the openness of the sky can’t make us feel afraid too often. We can hop on Skype and let our kid talk to grandma in England, or zip over to the megamarket for a fresh fruit or two from 5,000 miles away. No biggie.
But imagine actually walking along the line you’re panning in that map app. That’s the real world. That distance will still be there even if the airline industry collapses. And some day, things will likely collapse. That’s why Caesar’s face isn’t on our coins, it’s why archaeologists were sure for some time that there was no such thing as the Hittites of the Bible (until they discovered it had, in fact, been a very large kingdom), it’s why you and I are feeling every day as if time is going faster and faster. Death draws nearer for us all, and all of us have no idea what we’re doing or where we’re going. Believe it.
And think of this: owing to rates of diffusion and probability, the air you just breathed may well have had a molecules in it that Jesus Christ breathed. Or Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Moses, Mohammed (p.b.u.h.), or the beloved Siddharta.
You may have drank water molecules they once peed out. You may have even eaten molecules they once did. Because as much as we like to set demarcations at national borders and oceans and cities, this world is in perpetual and open flow, all its atoms constantly circulating and diffusing across continents and oceans. And as much as we like to think of dead bodies as things in the ground, our bodies essentially replace themselves every few months. New cells replacing old, water and nutrients flushing out, energy burning, and on it goes, a neverending cycle of renewal and death right inside of us every day of our lives.
At a certain base level, we react to our own temporality and the wide open nature of the world by either clinging to comfort (familiarity) or embracing freedom (openness). This tension leans to one side or another in most people, helping create such broad societal binaries as ‘homebodies’ vs ‘adventurers’, ‘liberals’ vs ‘conservatives’, ‘employees’ vs ‘entrepreneurs’ and so on. Though people are never as set and inflexible as we like to think. You and I blend between these polarities and supposed unbending stereotypes even in different moments of single days, whether we realize it or not.
I’ve usually leaned toward openness, trying to make sure I’m looking out toward things I don’t understand and doing my best to make out what they mean. But I’ll still end up head-down in my office for weeks, worrying the details of a project that does nothing for me, seeing nothing beyond my routine and the worst kind of workaholic myopism.
Case in point: I’ve got a confession to make. I’m the kind who does iOS jailbreaks. I know — I really ought to follow the letter of the law of the United States of America, Apple’s favourite jurisdiction for litigation (not manufacturing though, God forbid.) But something inside of me just gets pumped up about things like wifi sync, video recording and personal hotspot functionality ahead of Apple’s schedule.
I’ve always craved ye olde un-sandboxed, oft-unstable “avant garde” unapproved approach to my digital habits, from the aeons ago of experimental OS 8 Kaleidoscope themes, to the Unsanity Menumaster days of Snow Leopard, to today’s SIMBL hacks and colourized sidebar icons.
And Steve Jobs wept. (Forstall too, maybe?)
In some way, I think this is about a battle for control — a sense that I should be able to choose my own path and fashion my own environment. In the same way some feel the urge to collage the insides of their school locker, build their own house, or fix their own car, I feel the urge to tweak my devices.
But then, usually after a particularly frustrating round of having bricked my phone or screwed up my last stable backup, I step back and realize how much time I’ve just spent moving around bits, not even enjoying the process or the results that much, and certainly not enriching anyone else’s life, or making myself a more well-rounded person. I’ve again lost perspective, indulging a certain kind of digital lifestyle gluttony, and starving myself along the way.
There’s so much out in the world to explore, so many people needing an open heart, conversations needing a clear head, places needing a clear eye. And here I sit, getting sick from getting stressed out looking at my little screens for too long.
So don’t close yourself up like I have. If you do the same, stop, look up and out and open outward — and maybe we’ll all get more chances when you come back and tell us what you found. Because if you get up and out of your beaten micro-habits, you will find something. Because it’s bigger out there than even that panning map app would have us believe.
“If it excites you and scares the crap out of you at the same time, it probably means you should do it.”
“Some are always in a state of preparation, occupied in previous measures, forming plans, accumulating materials, and providing for the main affair. These are certainly under the secret power of idleness. Nothing is to be expected from the workman whose tools are for ever to be sought. I was once told by a great master, that no man ever excelled in painting, who was eminently curious about pencils and colors.”