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Travel without filters

9:30 am, February 14, 2005

In the back seat of an Ambassador auto, on the road from Jodhpur to Jaipur.

My digital camera can record 129 images on its memory card before running out of space. Then I have to dump the images to my laptop, erase the card and charge the battery before I shoot again. I carry a second, smaller memory card in case I find myself in a situation where I’ve filled the first card and want to shoot more images.

It’s never happened. Once I’ve taken eighty or ninety shots – yesterday, I made it to one hundred – my brain is full, and I, too, need to dump images and recharge my batteries.

The travel I choose to do involves going to places I’ve never been and absorbing as much data – sight, sound, smell, taste, texture – as I’m able to. I seldom use the term “vacation” to describe this sort of travel, as the word implies that I am creating a vacancy, a space in my brain that might otherwise be filled with worries about my work, my house, my relationships. This sort of travel leaves no vacancy – any space vacated by everyday concerns is filled to bursting with new impressions. And while it’s fulfilling – and addictive – it’s also exhausting. I sleep ten hours a night, and it’s not enough to keep me from feeling stretched and drained.

I tried to check my email yesterday and discovered that, while I could access the server, it was entirely useless for me to try to read the mail, all 8,000 new messages worth. This does not imply that I will need to read 8,000 or more messages when I return home in a few days – I’ll likely read less than 500.

At least 4,000 of those messages are generated by programs I run to collect data for my research. Rather than entering the commands everyday to run these programs, I use a Unix program called “cron” which runs the program at a fixed time every day. Each time one of these programs runs – “cron jobs”, as we call them – they send me an email, letting me know that they ran succesfully or, ocassionally, how they failed. When I check mail using my laptop, I have a filter set up that files these messages into a special folder, which I can consult should something go wrong with my scripts. In other words, in ordinary circumstances, I never see these 40 daily messages.

I also have a set of filters that eliminate most spam from my email inbox. Without these filters in place, I would get a hundred creatively spelled offers a day for Viagra, porn and wire fraud opportunities – with them in place, my universe is almost blissfully spam free. Finally, filters take traffic from the dozen mailing lists I’m on and sort it into folders, allowing me to read those lists when I have time (which is to say, never.)

With these filters in place, my day’s information processing is a faily easy task. About 50 meaningful messages come in every day – about 20 demand a response. If I can process those messages and issue responses, I am doing the baseline work required to keep me a functioning member of my personal, professional and intellectual communities. Without those filters, I get 500 messages a day, 90% of which are not meaningful, and I drown before I can even issue a response.

This, I think, explain why my brain fills up so fast when I’m travelling. The human body has a number of remarkably efficient input devices which gather petabytes of data each day. In ordinary circumstances, much of this data is redundant – my house and my office look much the same from day to day; the view from the window changes very slowly; the constant noises the house makes are largely the same today as they were yesterday.

In ordinary circumstances, we monitor our environment for changes. If I hear a truck in the driveway, perhaps the UPS man is here and I need to sign for a delivery. If I smell smoke, the toast is burning. The petabytes of data I’m absorbing can be efficiently stored as changes from the base (or “no burnt toast”) state. My brain processes those changes and reacts accordingly, but filters out the vast majority of inputs – that information which has not changed from previous experience.

The result is a very efficient form of compression. Video that changes a great deal frame to frame is difficult to compress – you need complete copies of each frame. Video that changes little compresses easily – you only need to store the first frame, then the ways the second frame differs from the first, and so on.

Walking in Jodhpur, Rajastan, from the massive fort above the town to the Clocktower market, through winding alleyways past havelis painted with whitewash and indigo, all the data is new. The smell of the cowshit, sewers, incense and cooking oil has no exact parallel in my previous experience, and so I’m forced to record it all, uncompressed. It’s possible that more new data comes in through my pathetically inadequate human nose during this two-hour walk than I encounter in a week of ordinary life.

Taking photos on a walk like this becomes a process of backing up data. By putting the images that catch my eye onto a chip, I’m freeing more space to process sound and texture. (The first day in Jaisalmer, a desert city near the Pakistan border, we arrived during a sandstorm. I was almost entirely dysfunctional, not because the sandstorm was incapacitating, but because the sensation of being coated, face and arms, with fine dust was so novel.) The photos, after the fact, are occasionally beautiful, and often help me remember what it sounded and smelled like years after the trip is done. But even if they didn’t, I would have to take them anyway, otherwise I couldn’t walk the whole way from fort to market.

Rachel and I repeated the walk down from the fort yesterday. It was less overwhelming. I retried a few dozen shots, looking for richer colors and better angles of light. As we’d reach a fork in the road, I’d say “Let’s try something new” and strike off in an apparently novel direction. Each time, a sign for the “Blue City Cyber Cafe” or the “Ganesh Ayurvedic Healing Center” would remind us that we had, in fact, been down this road before. After four “novel” turns down “new” streets, I felt like I’d entered one of Calvino’s cities, where only a single, long street exists no matter which way I “chose” to turn. It was as if the programmers who had built Jodhpur had only rendered a fixed quantity of scenes – wander the city far enough and the scenes would, neccesarily, repeat themselves.

As we walked on, a new theory: my brain, overwhelmed with data, was trying to optimize compression, taking me down the paths I’d walked three days prior in a desperate attempt to avoid being overwhelmed by input. The street would feel novel until I found a reference point – usually something I had photographed – that let me know I’d been here before. The impressions of that first walk were too indistinct to allow the brain to only save changes, but at least they’d begun wearing smooth some pathways, making them easier to travel than entirely new roads.

And this is, ultimately, why long airplane rides at the end of a trip are refreshing. The air is stale, the food bland, the seats cramped, the movies vapid. They’re entirely predictable and unchanging, which, to an overtaxed brain, is a cool towel on a hot, dusty face.

(If you’re interested in the photos I took in India, please take a look at some of them here.)