Q&A with prolific writer Pico Iyer

Jan. 27, 2017, 12:23 a.m.

Known for his travel writing, Pico Iyer has explored cross-cultural interactions for decades as an essayist for TIME and writer for publications including Harper’s and the The New York Times. In the midst of his travels, he has sought ways to escape the fast-paced world and find quiet – even if that means avoiding cell phones or finding solitude in a Benedictine hermitage.

The Daily sat down with Iyer to discuss the significance of solitude and connection in a technology-focused world.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You’ve written about stepping away from the fast pace of the world. Throughout your life, has the pace felt constant, or have you seen it accelerate at any point?

Pico Iyer (PI): [I’ve felt it] accelerate beyond measure. In your lifetime, in the last 15 years and even in the last five years. And I think that acceleration is really exhilarating, and we’re all the beneficiaries of that. I think our lives are much richer and happier for all the data we get. But I think more and more people are getting to the stage of information overload and at least trying to find some balance.

So, yes, I think that even when the new millennium began, things were more human-based. I suppose my feeling is that humans could never live at a pace determined by machines without becoming machines ourselves. We don’t want to do that. We’re more made for the speed of life rather than the speed of light.


TSD: Exploring the Internet can be thought of as a form of travel – a way of exposing yourself to the world. At the same time, it can constrict people to their already established groups. How do you view that seeming paradox?

PI: As you say, it can be a gateway, but I think it’s always a mediated world. It’s a secondhand world. Let’s say Cuba … the more we can see Cuba online, the more we have the illusion of knowing it, and the further we are from the Cuba in reality. The more we can see the rest of the world online, the more I try and go to visit the places. Particularly, of course – as has come up recently — there’s more and more misinformation …  So I think that the more we get secondhand, the greater is the value of a firsthand encounter. Which is why I’ve noticed that even businesspeople who could do everything by Skype, or other devices, will fly across the country to meet even for an hour. Or why you and I – who could watch a thousand Arcade Fire videos tonight – when Arcade Fire comes to the Great America Parkway, we’ll spend quite a lot of money because that’s our way of acknowledging that there’s no substitute for the live experience.


TSD: How do you encounter a place that you visit so that you get to know it better than through secondhand information?

PI: I wouldn’t say that I get to know it, but at least I get to experience it. If I were to coming to Palo Alto tomorrow, I would try to walk and walk and walk as much as possible in the first 48 hours, before ideas and prejudices and lines of argument have begun to form. And I always, as Richard [Rodriguez] was saying, I have this [notebook] with me, and as I am walking in a state of relative openness, I am trying to let it speak to me as much as possible and absorb it with all my senses, transcribing everything because if I leave it for even a day or so, I’m not going to catch the immediacy. I try to expose myself to a place as much as possible, and after let’s say 48 hours – of course I couldn’t claim to know anything about Palo Alto – but I will have heard and smelled and seen a fair amount. So I can begin to think, well, its character’s a little bit different from Santa Barbara in this way, and it’s different from Santa Cruz in this way, and so on.


TSD: In terms of having something to say, there’s a balance between experiencing the world and exposing yourself to new perspectives and reflecting upon them. Has that balance changed for you?

PI: I don’t think it has. For example, you and I are talking now, and then at some point after we finish you will go to probably a fairly quiet place to write this out. And it’s exactly that process – the breathing in, the breathing out the experience of our conversation and then what you make of it. The one change is that there are so many distractions and interruptions. That’s why I live in this very extreme state in rural Japan.

There’s this new field called interruption science, and they’ve found that it takes somebody 25 minutes fully to recover her concentration after a phone call. But the average person in a place like this gets a phone call every 11 minutes, so we’re never caught up – so that’s the new challenge, that especially a writer has to face, but anybody trying to make sense of her experience.


TSD: You’ve maintained not using a cell phone, right?

PI: Yes. Which makes problems for my friends and bosses sometimes. My heart goes out to them. But I try to compensate – I’m fairly quick about answering emails.

It’s partly because I think that I’m a very distractible person. As I’m talking to you, even if it were vibrating in my pocket, I wouldn’t be talking to you actually. Half my mind would be here [in my pocket with] who’s emailing me … And as soon as we finish I’d have to check it. I think two of the great luxuries in life are attention and intimacy. Most of us are happiest when we’re really talking to somebody, instead of all over the place. So if we allow ourselves to be distracted by too many things, we’re doing ourselves out of our happiness and our richest experiences. I find that I’m happiest if I’m lost in a film, lost in a concert, together with my wife, having a really good conversation with a friend. Anything that eats into that is going to be a loss, probably.


TSD: What do you think of the relationship between the medium in which you’re telling the story and content?

PI: I have been thinking quite a lot about that. For example, I found that if it is a case between listening to a talk and seeing it on YouTube, I prefer listening. I find that I can attend to it much more in the absence of distraction. Maybe it’s a failure of mine, but when I’m looking at the person, the words come in to me much less deeply than when I’m just listening to the voice. Recently, I love podcasts and I love the radio because it is such an intimate medium. All you are getting is somebody giving you their heart and soul, and that is what you are giving back in some ways. I often move away from the visual for that reason. When I’m waiting for my wife to come back from work, and I’m just killing time for about an hour, I’ll often turn off all the lights and just listen to some music. And I’m amazed at how that clarifies me and I feel so much fresher when I talk to her than if I were checking my emails or watching TV or scrolling through the Internet. I think that the problem is never in our devices, it’s just in us not knowing how to make the best use of them.


TSD: Is that cleansing similar to the catharsis you feel when you write in Benedictine hermitages?

PI: Yes, that’s why I decided to go there, 25 years ago. I try to go there for three days every season. Of course it’s only three percent of my days, but it makes such a difference to the rest of the 97 percent. And I think that most people nowadays do do something. They practice yoga, or they go for a run, or they play music, or they cook or play volleyball – whatever it is, but I think that all of us feel that if we can’t separate ourselves from that avalanche, we just got lost in it. And then we lose who we are, probably. And it’s a luxurious problem to have – many people have much worse, more urgent problems in the world.


TSD: You don’t characterize yourself as a travel writer. How would you characterize yourself or your interests? What could get lost in the commotion of life?

PI: Well, what could get lost is probably something different. I would say the depths of ourselves get lost. We become two-dimensional versions of ourselves.

And as to the other aspect of your question, I would say that I have been a writer about crossing cultures. I would suppose that since they’re crossing inside me, and I grew up criss-crossing between cultures, whether I like it or not that will always form me and will always be part of my interests. So when I travel, even say when I go to Japan, I can’t claim to say much about Japan, but I can say a little about Japan’s interaction with California, and vice versa. So I suppose cultures coming together has been my theme.


TSD: Is there anything else you want to share?

PI: I think of Stanford as, more than any other place, the ultimate global campus. I still have a lot of relatives in India and the one university they all want to come to is Stanford, more so than any of your competitors. And of course Silicon Valley, too. I think I read that 40 percent of the startups in Silicon Valley come from a single university in India. I love how Palo Alto and this area has become the nexus of the future, and this is partly because you all are creating the future in Stanford and Silicon Valley, but it is also a reflection of how the brightest minds from around the world seem to congregate here, which makes something very fresh.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited.

Contact Claudia Heymach at cheymach ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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