Sowing Anachronism: How to be Weird in Public, and Private
Flip phones, dip ink, Vespers, and other time machines
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Several years ago, when we lived in the thick of the suburban jungle, we would load up the jogging stroller with a toddler, strap the youngest in a carrier, while our eldest sauntered alongside, and embark on an urban pilgrimage to the grocery store. I (Ruth) carried along the same backpack I had used while hiking the Camino1, except now it was filled to the brim with milk, pasta, fruit and vegetables, and had baguettes strapped on the sides. Although we did not manage to do all our shopping this way, we made it a regular habit to walk2 rather than drive, trading convenience for a less tangible reward. It was one of the small anachronisms that resisted the unbearably fast pace of life, and prompted many a driver who zoomed past to take note and wonder: Why would anyone choose to do something so slow and effortful?
Now that we live on the edge of Mennonite country, we frequently encounter horse-drawn carriages conveying families to the grocery store or church, young ruddy-cheeked men and women cycling long distances to school or work, or gaggles of children walking alongside the fields toward home. Most of us cannot imagine (and may not desire) to return to such a seemingly cumbersome pace of life. Yet in an age where technology has wholly reformed our imagination, visible models of anachronism serve an essential role in reminding us that slowness and effort make us more human.
As a reader of School of the Unconformed, you may be looking for guidance that supports a tectonic shift in our relationship to technology amid a sea of a ubiquitous digital deluge. This sea is vast, and its surface remains mostly unbroken, reflecting the present tech default of, “anywhere, anything, anytime, for anyone”, with rare examples that make ripples by modelling the opposite of “only in certain places”, and “not everything”, and “it depends on your age”.
Among those making waves areand , who are endeavoring to “battle the hydra” of social media harms with reforms on governmental, institutional, and design levels. When reading over their work (especially the open-source Google document that contains the citations and summaries of current and proposed social media reforms), one feels hopeful, yet simultaneously overwhelmed by the immensity of the task of reining in the “many-headed monster” we have created.
“You talk as if god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that.”
- from The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, 1909
It is essential that we remember that we as individuals have agency. We do not have to wait for reforms moving from the top toward us. We can start from a bottom-up direction and instigate seeds of change by unsettling the assumptions about omnipresent technology use.recently commented in the lively discussion on ’s post Tech in the Family, “People can't practice or do what they've never seen done. This is true of more analog and *human* ways of living in 2023. And modeling such lives can be contagious.”
While we cannot possibly expect to offer suggestions for anachronistic practices that speak to everyone3, we would like to inspire you to stand out, to model different choices, and yes, even to be weird in public (and private), by sharing some of our own decisions that we have made over the last two decades. Depending on your own relationship to technology and life philosophy, they may strike you as absurd, reasonable, or as not going far enough, but we hope that the examples will spur you on to spread your own seeds of anachronism.
But we act in hope that repeated exposure to the Good, the beautiful, and better will eventually win over hearts and wills and triumph over ease, convenience and in some cases addiction.
Part I: How to be weird in public
Flip your phone
One of the most anachronistic choices you can make today is going cell phone-free, using a flip phone, or moving to a “light phone”4. While there are situations, such as taking care of an elderly or ill parent, when being reachable is important, most everyday situations do not require us to be as tethered as we are. Never having had a cell phone, I can confirm that this choice is very possible — albeit at times inconvenient — and builds a solid foundation for cognitive liberty. Friends and family know that they can reach me by landline or e-mail, and that I will get back to them when I am available.
Helpful phrases (all have been frequently tested with friendly tone and demeanor, with results ranging from raised eyebrows to interesting exchanges and offered discounts).
This is my all-purpose phrase:
“Do you accommodate people who choose not to use a cell phone?”
“May I ask why you choose to prioritize customers who place orders digitally over customers who are present here and now?” (when standing in line at coffee shop)
“I choose not to use a cell phone. Can I still take advantage of your offer without a QR code?”
Walk and get your bearings straight
Life is tuned to the speed of feet. As much as possible, we start our day with a walk through the neighborhood or forest which helps to reorient us to a proper pace, is conducive to conversations, and ties us to reality.
When driving, we don’t use GPS. Instead we write down driving instructions and make a hand-drawn simple map. This may sound incredibly outlandish, but it will literally shift and deepen your connection with your surrounding environment. By relying wholly on GPS instructions, we lose the important fundamental skill of being able to position ourselves independently5 . We literally need a machine to tell us where we are. This dependence leads to a thinning experience of physical locations, which are replaced with more abstract representations of the world.
If you want to take it to another level, walk the routes that you customarily drive to get a true sense of the distance and anchoring of your surroundings. We once walked nearly three hours to a bookstore we frequented, and gained a clear understanding of how strangely driving warps our sense of distance, while blurring the unique landscape features along the way.
When a twenty-year-old drops the keyboard and takes up the fountain pen, a wondrous individualization transpires. The keyboard “technologizes” them into users. There. they produce the same fonts. The pen characterizes them as distinct. They produce unique scripts…To compose a cliché with a Pelikan in hand is harder than to compose one on a Mac.
- from The Pen and the Keyboard by Mark Bauerlein
Writing by hand, especially with pleasing fountain pens6, attaches weight and meaning to our words, slows down the thinking process, and allows time for deliberate expression.and I both start our writing process for each article by hand, laying an unmachined foundation, interspersed with conversations over breakfast and lunch, and only then move on to the keyboard phase.
composed 100s of handwritten letters in 2019 and 2020 in part to demonstrate to her children that the hand-written word is worth fighting for. The Christmas season is a perfect opportunity to compose a personalized note. This is one of the traditions that our family has adopted over the last 15 years and affirms the unique importance of family and friends who frequently report how delighted they were to receive a letter. The Letter Writers Alliance is a splendid resource I chanced upon, containing a myriad of avid letter writing groups and international pen pal matchmakers for both children and adults.
Building a “Little Free Library” at the edge of our lawn, was a project that we started as soon as we moved into our current home. People come by daily to check for new mysteries, old favorites, or kids chapter books. It is an excellent way to get to know neighbors while spreading a counter-cultural practice. The books are completely free and make the rounds on a “take, bring, or keep” basis. Our box has never been empty. Here are some example of Little Free Libraries from around the world to inspire you to build your own.
Alternatively, you can simply spread books in public places. The Bookcrossing is an excellent resource, that provides guidance on the best places to leave your books, as well as offering a search system to locate over 14,309,627 books that are currently travelling throughout 132 countries.
Read or knit (or both)
Knitting is very conducive to thought. It is nice to knit a while, put down the needles, write a while, then take up the sock again.
There are two kinds of people that are easy to approach in public: those who read books and those who knit7. This week we had the chance to witness the fruit of a combination of these public anachronisms while at an engineering competition with our youngest son. Almost all of the audience members had their phones actively or passively in hand, apart from my friend and I who were knitting and chatting, and the man seated next to us who was reading a book. I glanced over and noted that it was a book on saints. All it took was an easy “May I ask what you are reading?” to open up a lengthy and surprisingly deep conversation with a stranger (who as it turned out just started attending the same church we do).
Leave the kids alone
Let children alone... the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions - a running fire of Do and Don’t ; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way and grow to fruitful purpose.
Over the years we have learned to step back and let our children play outdoors, explore, and make decisions untethered by phones8. Recently, our teenage son decided to go on a 10 km march/run in the countryside, showed us his planned path, and his expected return time - no phone needed. He came back enthusiastic and beaming. Our younger son regularly roams the neighborhood with a pack of friends in search of tadpoles, salamanders, and adventures. Some rules do apply, but they have freedom to make decisions, solve problems, and grow in self-confidence9. While certain neighborhoods are more conducive to “leaving kids alone”, there are myriads of ways to step back and allow for resilience to develop.
For concrete starting points we highly recommend the Let Grow project founded by, , and , who are spear-heading a movement to help children regain their independence.
Does walking to the grocery store really make a difference? Does drawing a map by hand rather than using a GPS mend our addled minds? Does writing a letter in dip ink stop the Machine? The instinctive answer might be simply ‘no’, but when we consider that all meaningful change must start with small actions, even when they appear futile, it is a resounding ‘yes’!
“Still, there is nothing for it but to get started. All of the best work is small work, after all.”
from The Blizzard of the World by
As a quick interlude, enjoy this fantastic example of a very publicly anachronistic Flash mob performing Handel’s Messiah in a food court:
Part II: How to be weird in private
Vespers as a time machine
When we sow the seeds of anachronism, we are sowing them in two directions. The first direction is outward, into the world around us. This outward anachronism is deliberately, weirdly10 public, so that others can see it, can get curious and maybe even ask questions. This type of anachronism is perhaps a form of social activism, not the loud and shouting kind, but an intriguing invitation to other people to see life in a new way.
We can also sow the seeds of anachronism inward, into ourselves. In this case we are not trying to change the world, but the way we see the world. We are trying to undo the Machine’s wiring of our thoughts and emotional patterns, and to cultivate alternative furrows of perception and experience.
All this might be easier if we owned a time machine. We could step into the machine, tap in a number and location on the console, and step out again a few moments later to find ourselves in rural England before the industrial revolution or perhaps in ancient indigenous America. We might immerse ourselves in these places long enough to feel not only refreshed, but changed, so that when we returned to our own techno-frenetic age, we might bring back something of what we had experienced—a closeness to nature, a slower pace of life, perhaps a more spiritual view of things.
While we shouldn’t revere the past blindly, without an awareness of its failings, there are valuable things that we have been losing in recent history. The internet and high-speed devices were supposed to make us “smart”, yet often these technologies turn out to be cognitive sandpaper, rubbing against the grain of our minds, smoothing away all memory or interest in older knowledge and tradition, and roughing out those politically incorrect edges, so that what is left is an angular, standardized block of mental space, into which more new “smart” things can be efficiently inserted.
We may not have real time machines, but there is still much in our world that can serve the same purpose. An example is the Great Vespers service in the Orthodox tradition. I (Peco) periodically attend this service, which occurs early on Saturday evenings throughout the year.
For many, the idea of “Saturday evening” resonates naturally with parties and entertainment, but Great Vespers confers an altogether different atmosphere. The lighting is dim and somber, and the walls are paneled with icons of saints, Christ, Mary, the whole heavenly family. Each icon is a window to eternity, but also a window to the past. The place is crowded with historical figures. Far fewer churchgoers actually attend the service. Often the building is nearly empty; a university student or two, half a family, a smattering of solitary figures. We are vastly outnumbered by the eternal personalities, who gaze upon us, upon Vespers, just as they have been doing for long centuries, all the way back to the Roman Empire. Going to Great Vespers is like teleporting into Byzantium.
For the entire time, we stand. This too is a throwback. We stand, we listen, and my mind wanders into worries, irrelevancies, grocery lists of distraction. Again and again I return my attention to the Priest, to the chanters, to the words, to the iconic faces looking back at us. My attention is very specific in this sense, yet in another sense very broad, wholistic, taking in everything, from the heights of heavenly inspiration to the depths of my sore ankles. Especially my sore ankles.
Time stretches. The whole thing takes about thirty minutes, yet it seems longer. I remind myself not to be fooled when I hear the words, “Let us complete our evening prayer to the Lord”. That doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s much more to go. We are on Roman time.
When Great Vespers finally ends, I notice a change my perception. More than once, when I have stepped out of the Byzantine time machine and into the evening, the silence of the snow-covered neighborhood outside the church seems deeper, and the glow of the streetlights, the darkened sky and overhanging trees, are unusually striking. It’s as if the volume of the world has been turned up to reverential intensity, making ordinary things flicker with enchantment.
These perceptual experiences tend to be short-lived, fading quickly. They are experiences one might also encounter during other gently absorbing activities, like a long walk in the woods. They can leave us more alert yet more peaceful, more attentive yet also relaxed.
But in the case of Great Vespers, something else also happens. By teleporting into Byzantium over and over, I gradually absorb a perception of reality that is vastly different from the modern technological world. I root myself in a set of understandings that pre-exist the current historical era, that are indifferent to the convictions and peculiar fetishes of this age. The time machine liberates me from the Tech Machine, not just in the moments I am there, or when I experience those flickers of enchantment when I depart, but by quietly undoing the Machine’s manipulation of my attention, my emotions, and my identity, and rehabilitating these things so that they mirror not temporal agendas, but eternal ones. It’s at this deeper level, I think, that the real enchantment happens.has written about cave Christianity, a move toward a wilder and more ancient sort of faith. But all Christianity, well-practiced, is cave Christianity, insofar as it demands we strip down our lives to the most basic, essential things: a deepened awareness of ourselves, of the people around us, of the Reality that gave birth to us and sustains us. It seems to me this is what Great Vespers is aiming toward. What Jesus called being poor in spirit.
How to build a time machine
Great Vespers, or the Orthodox tradition, is not the only way to anachronize the self. Anthony DeStefano has referred to Catholic Mass as a time machine, in the sense that it is not simply a remembering, but a literal reliving, of the Crucifixion.
Even evangelical communities, which can be notoriously contemporary—with pop-style worship songs and lounge areas like cafes—encourage regular biblical reading, which is another way to go back in time, to cathedralize the mind with ancient words, to open a spiritual cave in the heart with meditations.
Judaism also emphasizes the remembering of its almost 4000-year old history—“remembering” and “not forgetting” are repeated almost 200 times in the Hebrew Bible. Other old religions and spiritual paths can also anachronize the self in unique ways. But one might wonder: Is it possible to self-anachronize without a formal religion or spirituality? Probably, if the self-anachronizing action does not remain an isolated task or symbolic gesture, but draws large or important parts of one’s life or identity into the action.
Mundane tasks like cooking, housecleaning, or gardening can often seem like intrusions to more urgent things in our schedule, yet if we do them with enough attention and care, we are not only disconnecting from screens and un-chairing our sedentary bodies but re-affirming one of the most “primitive” values of all: manual labor.
The simple act of reading may improve concentration, vocabulary, mood, slow mental decline, while reading fiction in particular can improve empathy. These benefits may help reverse the cognitive sandpapering of digital technologies, although they are not anachronistic per se, unless one more thing happens: as a result of our reading, our view of the world becomes shaped and nuanced by historical perspectives that pre-date our own time, perhaps ones that have been neglected or forgotten by modernity, yet which are nourishing and humanizing.
So, reading Dickens won’t make us Victorians, any more than reading Plutarch will make us Greeks or Romans; but if we read these and other writers in the context of a classical education, we may, in fact, experience some time-machining of our identity, as the act of reading is now not only an isolated task, but connected to a process of learning that shapes our broader values and ideas about life.
There might come a day, of course, when reading complex literature of any kind is itself considered anachronistic, simply by virtue of demanding too much and feeling too tedious. Digital technologies may have made many tasks easier, but at the expense of making us more averse to mental effort. According to a recent study, almost a million children in the UK11 do not own a single book, which mirrors another trend suggesting a decline in reading among teenagers during the 2010s in favor of online activity.
Mental effort was never easy, of course. When Umberto Eco, author of the medieval mystery The Name of the Rose, submitted his manuscript for publication back in the pre-internet days of 1980, it was seen as having too many difficult passages. As he explains in the Postscript to the Name of The Rose:
After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey’s own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are like penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.
Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.
Eco’s reflections apply to more than just reading. Sowing the seeds of anachronism is also like a mountain climb. If we want to succeed in the climb, then we need to practice our weird habits regularly, with proper pacing and wholesome discipline, and with an understanding of our personal tolerances. It’s no use being weird or old-fashioned if we can’t sustain the effort.
I sweat, therefore I am
It would be a mistake to think the purpose of anachronistic action is to become stuck in the past, any more than the purpose of a sunflower is to turn away from the sun and plunge back into the soil, as if its blooming head could thrive among the worms. But the opposite error, of trying to pull up roots and leap toward the sun—the future—is just as bad, if not worse.recently wrote about a multi-faith area at Bristol Airport, shown in the photo below. The thing is more than painfully bland. It’s an objective representation of how technology has cognitively sandpapered our minds, conceiving of us, and our spirituality, as that “standardized block of mental space” mentioned earlier. Here is where standardized people with standardized identities will come to worship their standardized gods.
Some might argue that a few travelers, at least, will welcome the convenient little box that is the Bristol Airport multi-faith area. Some might even push the argument further, and say this little box is not that different from the convenient little box that is the local grocery, bakery, or florist—or from the larger boxes we call “big box stores”. We have many such boxes in society. Even our smartphones are little boxes of convenience. Convenience is not a bad thing in itself, the argument goes. And all that may be true. But convenience as a philosophy for living is death. A pleasant death, but still death. The question, then, we need to ask ourselves is, How many convenient boxes does it take to kill a whole society?
More and more we are surrounded by these boxes, whose overriding characteristic is that they require the least possible effort on our part. But this is backwards. To be human is to work. I sweat, therefore I am. When we opt out of the standardized experience boxes of modern life, when we choose an anachronistic action instead, we are choosing to make an effort of the mind and body. Doing hard things builds the musculature of our humanity. Real things exercise what we are. Unreal things atrophy us.
Anachronistic action does something else, too. It connects the past to the present and our visions of the future. The stability of a society isn’t just lateral, reaching across the physical space of lands and cities, but vertical, reaching through time for its rich resources of wisdom. We can’t take all of the past with us, and we shouldn’t—not all of it was good. But the ideas of the past, at least, were tested slowly, and refined carefully, across generations and peoples. History winnows its wheat with many hands.
In the Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant put it this way:
Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history…
So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it—perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race.
Our age is rare, in that we’ve thrown ourselves into a laboratory of new technologies that have not been tested through the careful sifting of history. Our children and teens are being subjected to a global experiment, whose early results are disturbing, yet with no sign, as yet, that Big Tech or our elected officials are seriously interested in slowing the experiment down.
Which is why many of us will choose to creatively resist with anachronistic action. Step two of the 3Rs, which we introduced in an earlier essay, is Remove: physically remove devices and other forms of technology from any places where we don’t want them. The next step, Return, happens more naturally. Free of the magnetic pull of our devices, we will instinctively start to look elsewhere for stimulation, connection, and meaning. Anachronistic actions can be a part of this return, whether reading older books or writing by quill, or perhaps restructuring our lives around an ancient cycle of prayers and devotions.
So find your anachronism. Use a flip-phone in public. Take a pilgrimage to the grocery store. Debate Jane Eyre with a friend at a cafe. Sing Handel’s Hallelujah chorus to an urban crowd. Knit a scarf on the subway. Say grace in Latin at a Bristol Airport restaurant. Ripple the unbroken digital surface. Change yourself and the people around you with the good, the beautiful, and the quirky—and most of all, with the things that keep us truly human.
We are compiling a document of anachronistic practices to share with our readers. Please contribute in the comments below:
Name one or more anachronistic actions that you have tried or are currently practicing.
If you do not have any, which is one you would consider trying?
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and reflections :)
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Further Reading in the Front Porch Republic
Polar Rescue by Michael Toscano in First Things
The Beauty of Chalk by Roy Peachey in Plough
Trying to switch to a dumbphone by Will Lyon in The Front Porch Republicand
Trinity Forum Conversation After Babel withand Andy Crouch
The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain - if you are interested in reading a digital detox game plan woven into my experience on the Camino, see “A Digital Detox Pilgrimage”.
Depending on the weather and diversions along the way, this walk would take about 30 min each way.
The wide audience of “Everyone” is best exemplified with this glimpse of readers that signed up right after each other and included: a software developer, a homeschool mom, a poet, an ER Physician, a guy living off grid in Eastern Europe, and a former stock broker.
When we once lost our way because of a construction detour, an eagerly helpful group of seniors at a coffee shop helped us to regain our bearing.
Earlier this year I (Ruth) organized a “Young Writers Against the Machine” short story contest. The winners received beautiful silver coins (the most anachronistic currency imaginable) and a personalized certificate, and I composed their addresses in dip ink with pen nibs dating back to the 1950s.
Prof. Camilo Ortiz completed the first pilot project treating anxious kids with a “mega dose” of independence. They walked to school, ran errands — simple stuff. But this “Independence Therapy” worked better than drugs and faster than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Thanks to, who first drew our attention to the virtues of being “weird” in public in her article Joining the Dance: Setting Aside Screens to Build the City .