In Praise of Distraction: “Techno-cognitive Nomads” and the Perks of ADHD

[Illustration by Glen Cummings and photo by Anderson Ross, via New York magazine.]

“It’s been hypothesized that ADHD might even be an advantage in certain change-rich environments. Researchers have discovered, for instance, that a brain receptor associated with ADHD is unusually common among certain nomads in Kenya, and that members who have the receptor are the best nourished in the group. It’s possible that we’re all evolving toward a new techno-cognitive nomadism, a rapidly shifting environment in which restlessness will be an advantage again. The deep focusers might even be hampered by having too much attention: Attention Surfeit Hypoactivity.” – Sam Anderson praises distraction in this 2009 piece for New York magazine.

Being Together, Alone Together

I live about 4,100 miles from my mother. She’s in snowy Canada, I’m in (temporarily) snowy England. We talk regularly, email daily, and are “friends” on Facebook. I “see” her all the time. It’s not the same as in person, but still.

I wouldn’t notice if Twitter’s servers self-combusted, and I could live without Facebook, though it might be harder to find apartments or make contacts in [insert travel destination here], or to live vicariously through my acquaintances. (But then I might spend less time “liking” things and more time finding things I like.) If Skype irrevocably crashed, however, I would lose face-to-face contact (blurry and sometimes warped but still) with my family and closest friends, not to mention am affordable way to work across the Atlantic Ocean. More about that absurdity another time.

The Atlantic Monthly posted shots from photographer John Clang’s series Being Together. Clang, who immigrated from Singapore to New York more than a decade ago, superimposed photographs of people in their houses with photos of the relatives they Skype with projected on the walls. It brings them into view, if not in person. The story went online last September, but somehow it passed me in the slipstream of the internet.

I’m gearing up to write about communities the operate online and what lurks in the shadows of anonymity. I’ll also look at the perils of the modern, digital nomad. For a social science primer I’ll check out Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, a book that is at the top of my reading queue. Then I’ll probably Skype with someone far away. Then I’ll turn off my computer and go outside, dreary as a January day in London is.

More Reading
+ Go to The Atlantic for more images and quotes from Clang. And visit his website.

+ If you just so happen to be in Singapore, see Clang’s exhibit at the National Museum and take one of his masterclasses. The masterclasses end February 2 and the exhibit runs from January 23 to May 26, 2013.

+ Listen to an interview with Sherry Turkle on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Living Among the Sámi

American photographer Erika Larsen spent four years among the Sámi, an indigenous tribe who live in Scandinavia. Her photos show a people whose lives straddle tradition and modern life in a landscape that is beautiful, raw, and beyond stunning.

When they’re travelling, the Sámi stay in lávuts (shown above), their temporary homes on the tundra.

To see more of Larsen’s work, visit National Geographic’s online photo gallery.

The Hobo Code

1. The Hobo Code circ 1889. See Web Urbanist for more about hobo culture in America.

2. The Hobo Code circa 2012, in Good magazine’s Migration issue. Also, apparently, the name of an episode of Mad Men.

The Young and the Restless

Warning: geek alert! More esoteric scribblings about Bruce Chatwin!

[“In Search of Bigfoot (Ode to Thoreau),” by Tricia McKellar, for sale at Society 6.]

Are we born nomads? Are we meant to be restless? How does one tackle a chapter on that ocean called “community”? These are the sorts of questions I wrestle as I research for my book about modern nomads, drifters and next-gen communities.

What does this mean? Well, I’m wading, like a child who is only learning to swim, into a deep philosophical pool of citizenship, community and home–those esoteric things of which there are many definitions and no fixed answers. And with uncertainty comes restlessness.

But I’ve leave aside these intellectual insecurities for a moment to share a thought by Benjamin Phelan about another restless soul, the late author Bruce Chatwin. In the following quote, Phelan is thinking about the transition from nomadism to agriculture and about Chatwin’s theory that humankind was built to be nomadic. (I’m quite broadly synthesizing this, so if you like Chatwin, follow the link above to read Phelan’s book review in the New York Observer.)

It’s a long quote, tangentially linked to the meaning of home and notions of community, so bear with me:

Since Chatwin died, it has been shown by molecular genomics that humanity teetered on the verge of extinction in the distant, prehistoric past, and that our genomes are still reeling from the violent transition from nomadism to agriculture. The humans who survived weren’t the strongest or the smartest, necessarily, but the most restless—the ones who upped sticks and left the trouble behind. We are their descendants. We carry that DNA that saved them.

This hyperbolic assertion of our innate nomadism is one I only partly share. But I find something comforting in it, as if it affirms the inevitability of restlessness.

Tangential, eh? Geeky, certainly.

Well, you were warned.

Nomads Don’t Have iPads*

[Zunn Taiga, Mongolia, 2007]

Maria Popova’s Brainpickings is always fascinating, but for the sake of productivity I try to occasionally shut down my computer and smell the English roses here in London. So I was glad my friend Allan Casey–author of the lovely book Lakeland–tipped me off on a post about a new tome on nomads. Described by Popova as a “visual anthropology,” this book by the Dutch photographer Jeroen Toirkens and writer Jelle Brandt Corstius looks at nomadic tribes in Russia, Mongolia, The Arctic and elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. Their lives, judging by some of the images, are both modern and old fashioned.

In an interview with Gizmodo, Toirkens said:

"The most impressive thing about nomads I’ve learned in the past 12 years is their amazing resilience and capacity to adapt to changes. Nomads have been adapting to change for ages. They are living on the edges of our society and earth. Both literally and figuratively.

One of my favourite photos is of the Kola Sámi of Russia. Notice the street-light?

The book grew out of Toirkens’ project Nomads Life, which aims to document the life and culture of traditional nomads.

My only quibble is the notion that these are the “world’s last living nomads.” Through The Modern Nomad and the subsequent book, I’m seeking to explore different ideas of nomadism and tribes and communities. As we say in publishing, more TK.

*Headline stolen from Gizmodo.

The God of Walking

“I always wish I was somewhere else,” the writer Bruce Chatwin once told Michael Ignatieff, in an interview published in the literary magazine Granta. Chatwin was famously restless, a reputation he advanced both in interviews and in books such as In Patagonia and The Songlines. “My God is the God of walkers,” he wrote. “If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.”

Photo via Segnaleorario, Flickr

Chatwin spent six months walking acoss Patagonia, tramping from village to village, sketching out the characters he met as he chased a relic from his childhood—a scrap of skin from a brontosaurus which turned out to be, as all myths do, not what it appeared.

It seems to me that for Chatwin walking was a means to an end. Though he might have disagreed. In The Songlines he writes that the nomads he meets, first in Africa, were “peoples whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning or end.”)

Chatwin was guided by a personal mythology, and his writing is sometimes likened to magic realism. “Myth, like love, is a decision,” the Canadian author Charles Montgomery wrote in his own quest story, The Shark God: Encounter with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific. “What it answers is longing. What it demands is faith. What it opens is possibility.”

The possibility that Chatwin opened in The Songlines and In Patagonia was accomplished through this walking, this tramping, this nomadism. This restlessness. It was a quest that could never be finished. Sometimes, when I am new to a place and I miss my family and friends and enter that strange ecosystem of foreigness where one is both a part of a community and apart of it, I am skeptical of this kind of endless quest. As I’ll explore in The Modern Nomad, it can become a goal never accomplished, a place never reached. Momentum for the sake of momentum, you might say.

When I think about the God of Chatwin’s personal mythology, I’m reminded of a great line from Peter Behrens’ novel The Law of Dreams: “Tramping was strange and addictive, a kind of perfection, but there came a time when you had to stop or you would walk right out of yourself.”