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In the Age of Despair, Find Comfort on the ‘Slow Web’

Surfing the web used to feel a lot more like actual surfing. Grab your (key)board, paddle out, and spend some time bobbing in the calm waters of the worldwide web.

Now? It’s a bit like trying to surf a tsunami. Our devices buzz and bleep for our attention all day long. Our brains are permanently frenzied. Sitting through an entire video or reading an entire article online now seems impossible without opening another tab or reaching for another device. It’s no longer about catching a wave and riding it to the shore; it’s about keeping our heads above water.

What happened? Have we lost ourselves out there, or has the internet fundamentally changed? The answer is both. And since we can control the internet about as well as we can control the ocean, the only immediate option is to look deep into ourselves and change what we do online.

When you feel yourself starting to panic from a flurry of notifications or become dizzy with distractions from our always-on technology, guide yourself to the calmer seas of the “slow web.”

Zen and the Art of Web Browsing

Slowing down online comes in many forms, but became a movement several years ago. The information superhighway had become so fast—too fast to make sense of the bombardment of information—that some decided it was time to set speed limits. In 2012, writer Jack Cheng described the idea as the “slow web.” He argued that our sense of time online had become warped. We mindlessly scroll for so long that we easily lose track of what we’re doing, what we’re consuming, or what any of it means. We’ve been trained to “power browse,” skipping from tweet to tweet, from one short video clip to the next, struggling to keep our heads above water. The only remedy is to slow down.

It’s a simple idea. In fact, Cheng has since disavowed it for being too simple. “The ‘Fast Web’ seems today to be even faster, more frenetic, more addictive,” he wrote in a 2016 update to his original post. “I no longer believe that anything this complex and systemic can be solved by a set of user-experience practices alone.” Regardless of Cheng’s soft about-face, the slow web movement suggests we should read the news, check our email, or browse the web on our own timetable, resisting the immediate and overwhelming nature of modern technology. It also suggests we should spend our time online doing things that satisfy us. Forget “junk food” apps, like Facebook. The “slow web” is all about experiences we can really savor: reading one long article rather than skimming a thousand tweets, or catching up with friends who live far away rather than thumbing through Instagram.

My personal “slow web” preference? Watching train videos on YouTube. With a few keystrokes, I’m on a train traveling through Bulgaria, watching the pastoral landscape unfurl out the window. I can easily hop over to a train in Sweden, or Sri Lanka, or Santa Fe, all boarding from the same platform: YouTube. These slow, quiet videos contain no music, no message. Only hours of footage and the invitation to teleport somewhere else.

This is an exercise in patience. It’s all too easy to spend hours staring at YouTube as algorithmically generated recommendations feed more and more content into the queue. But to spend hours deliberately looking out a window—virtual or otherwise—is another thing entirely. It requires mental fortitude and endurance. A capacity for boredom. It challenges you to resist opening another tab, to avoid checking for notifications, and to merely observe the landscape before you.

Platforms like YouTube often embody the “fast web”: deep, black voids of mindless entertainment. But they can also give us access to a world much wider than our own. Hidden within the systems designed to capture your eyeballs and seize your attention, there is also a capacity to watch slowly and mindfully.

There is a certain art to sitting down—even in front of a screen—and spending a few minutes meditating on a grassy knoll in England, or joining a stranger on a stroll through Tokyo just as cherry blossoms begin to bloom. One of my favorite “slow web” videos captures the train ride from Bergen to Oslo, a seven-and-a-half hour journey along the spine of Norway. There is no music. No narration. Just seven and a half hours of lakes and mountains, farmhouses dotting the hillsides, snow-dusted mountains, and the occasional interruption of the train conductor announcing the next stop.

I haven’t watched the video in one sitting—even on the slow web, seven and a half hours of screen time seems gluttonous. But I do return to it often, picking up at different stations, like a hop-on, hop-off train ride to another part of my brain. On days when I feel anxious from notification overload or panicked about the news, these virtual vacations remind me of the promise of early web: a way to make the world feel smaller, a way to feel less alone. I can be somewhere else in just a few keystrokes.

Finding this kind of peace doesn’t have to involve train rides. Virtual walking tours of cities work well, too. One WIRED editor likes to watch episodes of NHK World’s Cycle Around Japan, a meandering travel show about touring Japan on a bicycle. Another watches the Royal Ballet’s live rehearsal broadcasts. Whether it’s demi plies or hours on the train, the objective remains the same: It’s nice to suspend yourself from tech overload and teleport yourself somewhere else. In an age of despair, it’s one way to remember what the internet was designed to do.


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