Doing Nothing Is An Art
Paul van der Stap
by Elisa Veini
It started a couple of years ago. Suddenly everyone had a smartphone. “I tried to message you, but I couldn’t find you on WhatsApp”, people would tell me. “That’s correct,” I answered, “I don’t have it.” Puzzled looks. People found it clearly very problematic, as if I were completely out of their contact zone. Then I realized that no one was reading a book or a newspaper in the train anymore but was occupied by their phones, no matter how long the journey took. At the same time, the expectation to be able to reach anyone, or anything anytime seemed to have become a given. Even in my provincial town in the Netherlands, supermarkets were now open daily, from early to very late. The religious lobby that promoted conservative opening hours had clearly lost to the economic necessity of earning what you can, whenever you can. Something very profound had changed.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr sets out to explore how computers and internet have changed our way of thinking. According to him, we are losing our ability to concentrate for longer than five minutes at one stretch. Our minds are geared to receiving quick messages and scanning through web pages. Jonathan Crary goes a step further. He defends sleep as the ultimate escape from the contemporary capitalism that expects people and goods to be available 24/7, which is also the title of his book. If Carr and Crary are to be believed, people can practise mindfulness, meditation and yoga as much as they like, but it all amounts to little more than fighting the symptoms. True rest and peace are beyond our reach. But are they right? And what about people elsewhere in the world who would wish nothing more than to have access to the internet in the first place?
From NYC to the Albanian Alps
If anyone, Catherine Bohne can answer that question. Five years ago, she moved from Brooklyn, New York where she owned a bookstore, to Valbona, a remote village on the Albanian Alps near the Kosovo border. Although the area belongs to the poorest in the country, it has been discovered by ecotourism due to its unspoiled nature and beauty. I met Catherine last summer, when my good luck took me to Valbona. Together with Alfred Selimaj, Valbonian by birth, Catherine runs a friendly guesthouse cum (excellent) restaurant and information centre in the valley. She made the first ever hiking maps for the area and is involved in a nature conservation project for the Albanian Alps National Park. For her communication with the outside world, she relies on an irregular access to Internet.
Paul van der Stap
“You would think the slow Internet would drive me crazy. Also of course the electricity goes out for hours or days or weeks at a time, but actually I find this very good – not always at the moment when it’s happening, but with hindsight. I feel like it puts an important brake on getting too ambitious… In NYC, people had started to expect you to answer emails within minutes. I think in a city like New York, where there are eight million people crawling over each other every minute of the day, it’s pretty insane that you should have to rely on a computer to meet people, but that is what I saw happening more and more.” Cell phones and laptops were not allowed in her bookstore. “We didn’t strip search people, but we had a little sign on the door with a red circle and slash-mark”, she explains in her email. “The bookstore was an unusual place (to say the least). There aren’t many places in NYC where you can just ‘hang out’ for free. On important public days we’d hook up a video projector and project whatever big thing was happening onto a sheet pinned over the French doors, and everyone would bring wine or cookies of something and we’d all hang out together.” It was a matter of choice.
In Valbona, things are very different. This is where schoolchildren learn about computers on a black board. “The informatics teacher comes once a week and lectures the kids on how to use a computer by drawing pictures on the blackboard, since they don’t have a computer. They didn’t actually have a clock until some tourists donated one last year,” explains Catherine. The schoolchildren were lucky to receive another donation last year: a couple of guests gave their iPad to them – a huge contribution to their computer ability. But in relatively isolated places like Valbona, the Internet is crucial. “Three years ago a transformer was struck by lightening. As a result, nine houses were left without electricity for six winter months: no lights, no hot water, no heat or cooking except a woodstove. But I was able to go online and read everything I wanted about electrical engineering on Wikipedia. I was also about to communicate with potential grant donors with the end result that we wrote a project and got 8,000 US dollars to build a small hydroelectric generator which now produces 15kW – enough for basic lights for those nine houses.”
In New York, Catherine could have gone to the library, or asked someone for help. In Valbona, neither option was available. That made her realize the huge importance of the Internet: “That is what the Internet was supposed to do, right? Make information free and available to anyone anywhere. And yes, the Internet is wonderful, if you can afford a computer, have a constant source of electricity and speak English. The English Wikipedia is virtually endless, and the articles are generally of high quality, while Albanian falls into the 10.000+ category putting it right up there with Basa Sunda, or Walon. It’s rudimentary.” It is a question of access, having the money to buy a computer and learning how to use it, but it is also a question of living in the right context and knowing the right language.
With some inventiveness, most problems can be solved. During our stay in Valbona, my husband happened to need to check his work email. Waiting until we were back in Tirana was no option; something needed to be sorted out right on that very day. What first looked like a huge problem – it would take us a day to get to the nearest public Wi-Fi – solved itself the way things mostly solve themselves in Albania: by just asking. Of course he could log in on his email through Catherine’s phone. After a few attempts, he succeeded in finding connection for just long enough to handle that particular important email. Then the Internet went blank again.
A little improvisation helped us out, but then, there was a person who could help us. For many others in the far corners of Europe or wherever else in the world, that kind of help is mostly not available. One wonders if Crary, Carr and many other critics of the online world we are living are right with their nightmarish prophecy of a new class divide between those who do and who don’t have access to the internet, and with that, to the 24/7 economy. Are the people without access left out, or being saved from it? Places like Valbona put the critics in a different framework.
For the foreign guests in Catherine’s guesthouse, the lack of access to the outside world comes as a rare opportunity. It is a luxury, like mindfulness or meditation lessons. A temporary pleasure with the certainty that next week or ultimately the week thereafter everything is back to normal and the WhatsApp community is awake and calling. “I think that people mostly enjoy having an excuse to ‘switch off’”, says Catherine. “I do. Sometimes people are sad because there are no t-shirts or souvenirs buy but we are planning to make some sort of community collective shop. The main problem arises from people who arrive assuming that there will be a bank machine around somewhere. Nope. Credit cards? Nope. Then they get this panicked look on their faces…” Also for that problem Catherine has improvised solutions, so that her guests can really enjoy “switching off”. That is fair enough, as the most of them come to Valbona for it.
If anything in the world is special to us westerners anymore, then it is experiencing time as it is without additions. Waiting time, for example. Unlike myself, my 11-year old daughter and her friends are all hooked on always being online. But she also has a penfriend from Australia with whom she exchanges old-fashioned handwritten letters. A letter from the Netherlands takes two to three weeks to arrive in the central Australian city where her penfriend lives. Count then at least a week for writing back, and again three weeks on the way, and it can take nearly two months until my daughter receives a letter in return. Does she complain about the long waiting? No, she finds it thrilling. When the letter from Australia then finally is there, it is the talk of the day among her friends, as my daughter is the only person they know who receives letters from a penfriend. That is something special.
It was the feeling of time that was just there and not going anywhere in particular that struck me most in Valbona. The hardcore hikers staying in the guesthouse were restless, and always worried about their plans whenever the weather turned rainy, but there were also enough guests who, like us, spent their time doing not very much. There, it was easy to forget how strange it is not to have a smartphone, or not answer emails five seconds after receiving them. In Valbona, it was OK not to do anything at all. As Catherine describes the place on her website, “Valbona is the perfect destination for those who are good at amusing themselves. If your ideal getting-away-from-it-all involves a lot of lying around and reading, splashing around and flipping rocks, getting to know people who seem to live in a completely different reality (or do they?), or hurling yourself at the nearest impossible peak, then Valbona is for you.” A bigger difference from NYC would seem hardly possible. She admits this willingly: “I must be one of my only contemporaries who knows what it’s like to have months and months when you wake up in the morning and think ‘Hm. What shall I do today?’”
Catherine Bohne at work.
That difference is existential; it is part of the local culture and habitat. “The Valbona concept of time is non-existent. In Albanian, when someone calls you: ‘Hey, come here’, you answer: ‘Erdha’, which is past tense, ‘I came’, instead of: ‘I am coming’. That’s pretty crazy, and telling – because in fact you may not be anywhere near getting there. I think it’s the nice side effect of a country that still relies for a great part on subsistence agriculture. Non-negotiable things are things like cutting the hay before it rains of collecting firewood in the second week of October. Things that must be done, or you die. Everything else is pretty unimportant. This can be pretty frustrating for foreigners living here. One has to learn to wait while people sort out their important things. It teaches you to learn to actively do nothing”.
Continuously looking for new activities and challenges as we are, doing actively nothing comes to us a high art. We think it is exotic to find a place in Europe, where doing nothing is just part of the affairs. The question is, whether Valbona will stay the way it is, as Albania is rapidly reaching out to take part in the 24/7 world. Perhaps Crary will be shown to be right: there is no escape from the around-the-clock economy and the dependence that comes with it. But we are not that far yet. Catherine and other local people who campaign for the conservation of nature and culture in the region, could easily add to their programme a third value to campaign for: doing actively nothing, or boredom. Later on, she sends me a quote from Joseph Brodsky’s lecture “Listening to Boredom”:
When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it: submerge, hit bottom (…) boredom is your window on time, your window on time’s infinity, which is to say your insignificance in it, the most valuable lesson in your life (…) Boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its perspective, the net result of which is humility and precision.
Joseph Brodsky, “Listening to boredom” (excerpt from “In Praise of Boredom”; adapted from Dartmouth College commencement address). Harper’s Magazine, March 1995 v290 n1738 p. 11(3).
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (London: Atlantic Books, 2010).
Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London/New York: Verso, 2013).
On the digital divide, see for instance:
Clint Witchalls: “Bridging the digital divide”, the Guardian, 17 February 2005 http://gu.com/p/28cp/sbl
Loren Treisman: “Access to information: bridging the digital divide in Africa”, the Guardian, 24 January 2014 http://gu.com/p/3m5y6/sbl
Catherine’s website: www.journeytovalbona.com
About the Author:
Elisa Veini is a documentary maker, writer and communication specialist with an academic background in Cultural Anthropology. Her essays and short stories have been published in magazines in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada. Her website is www.titojoe-docs.nl.