The Power of Un-Location

Update: I finally didn’t take the taxi back, but enjoyed my first Shanghai Metro ride. And here is the video Teemu had mentioned:

As I sit here in a Starbucks somewhere in Shanghai, I feel home and free at the same time.

The past few days were filled with traveling from New Zealand to Hong Kong for a couple of conferences, then flying late into Shanghai before visiting one of our business partners in Hangzhou next day early morning and going back to Shanghai the same day where I now am for further business meetings.

For the rest, it’s often a busy and stressful time. What really caught my curiosity this time is that with all the travel, I have – accidentally or incidentally – disconnected with a bunch of people, be it friends, family or business partners.

„Dis-connected“ in the sense that at first my SIM card didn’t work properly in China and I had no internet connection. Once I could access the internet, there was no official access to Twitter, Facebook and other communication channels.

On top of that, before attending the last meeting, I realized I wouldn’t have enough cash to pay the taxi driver for my way back (I had tried the hotel lobby, 2 banks and 2 ATM machines without success).

So after the meeting, I decided I’m up for a little adventure and rather than asking my business partner to help me out, I asked for directions to the nearest ATM and simply started to walk. After about one kilometre I eventually found an ATM that accepted foreign credit cards, got some cash and decided to take rest in a Starbucks nearby.

While I’m not a dedicated Starbucks fan in western countries, I have to admit that this Starbucks in the middle of nowhere and far away from home gives me a feeling of „connectedness“ through a brand I’m familiar with. It is only now that I realize: nobody knows where I am – heck, I even don’t know myself where I am.

In this moment, I feel free and independent. Just like when I was playing somewhere in nature (without a GPS tracking device) as a child. Other than having to be at home for dinner, there were very few restrictions for us as to where we’d play as children and there was no way for our parents to truly know our whereabouts considering how naturally we roamed around in our area.

With my connectivity significantly limited and people not knowing where I am, I sense I’ve just opened myself to the wonderful world of „un-location“. It’s a powerful world that sharpens the senses, increases the feeling of independence and freedom and most importantly, opens a whole space inside of you that a Tweet, skimming through your FB newsfeed or email messages would destroy in an instant. It is this inner space, full of tranquility and creativity, in which I think true innovation can happen.

While a check-in on Foursquare can help with that impromptu meeting or to connect with friends you’d love to hang out with, having „location based tracking on“ all the time, is destroying a very powerful and calm place inside our minds. With the experience I’m currently making and by relating it to previous memories in my life, I’d like to experiment a bit more with it and find out how I could consciously create such environments in which this inner world can be given some space to unfold.

Some ideas for such experiments could be:

  • On the weekend, go to the airport and buy a stand-by ticket. You don’t know where you’re going and nobody else will. Call it a weekend-adventure.
  • Or, shut of the phone, laptop anything else (or better, leave them behind) and go into a room in your house without anybody noticing that you went into it. Even just an hour will do. When people are calling you and there is no sense of emergency, don’t respond.
  • And why not make use of the many great buildings all across the world, whether it’s a church, temple, synagogue or mosque. Say you go for a walk without mentioning a specific destination, but simply entering the calmness of a historic or spiritual place can also help bring about the Power of Un-Location.

I grew up in a generation that placed great importance on the different factors of freedom. And yet, I see us wasting the privileges given to us by our forefathers and throwing this freedom away all to easy. Simply by tapping into the Power of Un-Location, we could easily recreate some of that which we’ve lost along with the rise of the convenience of new technologies, the desire for hyper connectivity and the urge to self-express all the time. Turns out, there are many people noticing this and the blogosphere buzzes with posts about taking a step back, for instance:

As for me, I’ll sit here for some more time before taking a taxi back to the hotel, powering up my devices, connect them to the internet and publish this post. And I’ll make it a point to „dis-connect“ regularly, not only communication wise, but also location wise.

What about you? Do you have any suggestions or recipes for discovering the power of Un-Location? Or, perhaps, made a similar experience?

30 thoughts on “The Power of Un-Location

  1. Greetings Toby! Kitty, Janet & I still reflect on that wonderful visit to your family ancestral home outside of Stuutgart. On my next big birthday, Janet has promised me a biergarten on my back deck. We have already figured out the path of the refigerated tubing.

  2. I was travelling in Australia on a short conference visit last week. Although I had to check in for work reasons sometimes, I find it useful to be “disconnected” for a few days. When we are at home we become so immersed in day-to-day routine that we find little time for quiet contemplation. I always come back from trips with new ideas, not only from being exposed to new things, but also simply from having some disconnected time. Here’s what I was up to on my recent trip:

  3. With an infant daughter I am forced to disconnect every day in the evening for couple hours, because that is the only time I get to see her. Some of the best ideas and solutions come out during that no-internet time. As a COO of a rapidly growing company, I would go insane, if I did not disconnect for an hour or two every day, since my day always starts with checking emails and texts on my phone.

  4. Expressive write up Toby.

    Intentionally or Unintentionally — I realized the power of “un-location” a while ago — but i didn’t bother to research further into it, or come up with a terminology for it. So “Un-location” as a term, is new to me. But the act of finding peace within yourself, with your inside world, and not seeking satisfaction/happiness — or whatever you are seeking — externally, is something that i try to practice on a regular basis. In my experience, while disconnecting oneself from the internet is critical, unlocating oneself is a little challenging on a daily/weekly basis — specially if you are building a startup which is on 24/7.

    On weekends, specially Sundays, i try to spend time with myself — whether at home, or outside. Just me, and my thoughts and some good views ;-). This helps massively and it connects me with yourself. Most people dont get this, they are not used it, they will find it “boring” because they are always looking for happiness externally — watching tv, youtube, meeting friends.

    There are couple of reasons for this —

    1) We are scared to be alone because when we are alone, we ask very tough questions to ourselves, and most of the time, we are unable to answer them and want to get back to the connected world.

    2) I don’t know why — but we all are always looking for something to do/talk — externally. 99% of the population dont even get a chance to even think about “talking to themselves”. They are busy trying to win the “race” — getting good grades, earning more money, growing your startup. Its not completely our fault — this is how we have been conditioned by the world around us, so we dont know anything better.

    You’ve brought up a very interesting topic that touches upon and intersects variety of fields — business, social life, the current age, spirituality, etc. Would be great to take it offline one day ;-)

    In the meantime, make sure you beat chinese in the Dance Stand Revolutions ;-)

    • Thanks for the detailed comment, Chirag. The Chinese Dance Stand Revolutions are hard to beat. They practise from early on, in various forms, be it Tai Chi or simply dancing in a group on the street.
      I think loneliness in relation to a startup, connectivity and entrepreneurship in general deserves another blog. Will be thinking about this. I don’t know if “Un-Location” is actually a word. But it was the feeling I had at the time, with neither me, nor others knowing where I was. That’s different from a plain digital “dis-connect” which you can easily have by turning off the mobile. Sure, I knew I was in Shanghai, but it’s a pretty big place. It’s nothing compared to what Ellery mentioned below – of course – but being “un-located” once in a while, can be a very good thing, it helps sharpen the focus for when you’re back in your usual surroundings and back with the 24/7 startup building.

  5. Oh yes… travel has the effect of facilitating disconnection, which is why many of my best ideas came to me during biz trips. Unfortunately, with WiFi in every hotel room and soon also in airplanes, this is eroding – soon the only time to think undisturbed will be the minutes after the flight attendant orders you to turn off all electronic devices…

    I cover some of the ways to achieve a disconnect in a post at

  6. Pingback: The Power of Un-Location gets an airing | sticK – science, technology, innovation & commercialisation KNOWLEDGE

  7. Hi Toby,

    When my college buddy and I traveled in Poland in the 1980s, he worked at the shipping docks in Gdansk and I stocked food at a local grocery store. (I played a deaf mute to hide the fact that I don’t speak Polish). We had just enough communication skills to learn what locals thought of US foreign policy and of their local hero, Lech Walesa. (He had recently worked at the same shipyard). Now, THAT was an immersive and UN-connected experience. But you?!…

    For G-d’s sake, Tony, your sitting at Starbucks and checking Foursquare, while writing to a friend in Boston via WiFi and internet. I bet that you are simultaneously watching a Netflix film while downloading music on Bit Torrent. You call this “disconnected”? A few years ago, even the President of the US had less technology available when traveling. Try building a well in South Sudan, Uganda or Niger. Or climb K2 with a yak and a Sherpa (and without a sat-phone!).

    Just my 2c, friend! :)
    Ellery Davies,
    …and Connected in Boston

    • Actually, one point of the article is that you can be (digitally) well connected but really disconnected (in real life) at the same time. On the other hand you can be very disconnected virtually (because of no phone or internet access) but very connected in reality, no matter where you currently are, whether you know where you are and if you know the local people or not. I think our perception is not so different after all. Just to be clear: I wasn’t checking Foursquare or having internet access at Starbucks, maybe you should re-read the article.

  8. Great post. I do this in a very ‘miniaturised’ way each weekend that I can: Turn off data on my cell phone, and avoid all electronic media for two days so I can concentrate on family. As you say – getting ‘lost’ in the moment is something fairly rare these days – but is one of the requirement of being in true flow. So does this support the suggestion that people are less productive / creative in this era of hyper-connectivity?

    • I have wondered about this, too. When I look at the masters of the arts in 18th and 19th centuries, it is no wonder they could come up with sheer limitless creativity resulting in a productivity for music, lyrics and paintings that hasn’t been quite the same since. I’m not suggesting, people are less productive/creative today, but “thinking time” has definitely become a rare commodity and maybe it is only a question of time until it becomes a real factor (or currency) in our attention focused economy.

  9. I couldn’t agree more, Tony. I’m sure you mentioned this to me as you know it’s something that I’ve struggled with and attempted to build tools around. I’m really glad that in Shanghai you’ve found a slice of completely-alone time, and that you’ve been able to make the most of it.

    I’m about to head off for my usual Sunday run in the hills–3 hours without a phone to think and be. People ask me, “you don’t bring a phone!?” — they’re missing the point.

    Have a great rest of your trip!

    • It’s kind of ironic to have found this alone time in Shanghai, a city loaded with tech and full of people.
      I recently saw a high tech executive of large corporation running on our local beach in New Zealand with a firm grip around his Blackberry, occasionally stopping and looking if something “important” came up. It was a hilarious sight :) – what’s more important than to breathe while you’re running?

  10. Hi Toby, thanks for sharing this.

    I have done a lot of travelling in my time (and still hope to do a lot more!) and it is strange but I have to admit that I feel most peaceful when disconnected from everything, essentially allowing fate to take control. Thankfully it is extremely rare to receive an urgent message, but even when you do it is unlikely that you will be able to do something immediately about it anyway.

    Working 8-6 then 7 – 11 each day plus weekends certainly takes its toll, especially when living in a shared house. The opportunity to switch off, disconnect and have some time for contemplation is rare but relished when it arrives. I find that some of my most profound thoughts occur when I’m on the commute to work, travelling or simply on a stroll. Switching off from distractions is a invaluable and under valued commodity!

    • Interesting point. For me the main motivator to write this article was the realization that in the calmness of that disconnect, I actually discovered and felt a deeper connectedness, one that is not limited by location or internet access :)

  11. Toby, a brilliant example of something I’ve been staring in the face for a while now.

    I had a conversation the other day with my business partner that brought full attention to the noise we face very day. My partner said he was only going to go to conferences around the world and meet with experts to gain the insights he needs. He’s overloaded with all the articles and social media noise that is out there nowadays. He just wants the solid, great info when he needs it, and not to be bombarded.

    On a more personal note, studying myself and my habits, I find I am most productive when I manage my “busy” time and my “clear” time very specifically.

    Having a completely clear weekend where I can walk, relax, read a novel, visit a friend, have a call with someone I haven’t chatted to in ages, or completely get off the grid is revitalising. It makes my weeks incredibly productive when I come back to work. I am clear, focused and energised. But, I’ve only had this a few times now. I’m trying to make a habit of it.

    And, then there is during the day. I find receiving emails, phone calls, skype messages, tweets and Facebook messages incredibly intrusive and disruptive. I wish there was a switch I could flick that turned off the all the noise when I wanted to focus and be left without distractions. But there isn’t without being completely off the grid.

    When will someone create that switch? I can’t wait to have a clear way to say to people “I’m in” or “I’m out”.

    Thanks for sharing this with us! Hope your travels are fruitful!

    • It’s really interesting that so many people seem to notice the same developments at the moment and commonly observe that we’re eventually hitting a point of no return where the only solution would be a total “off-switch”.

      What you mention is true – in this time and age, there has to be a way to be in the middle of the most important meeting of your life and technology taking care of the fact that you really don’t want to be interrupted right now, except if there is a context so relevant for the meeting (think of a court case delivering new evidence during your plea) or a higher priority message that puts the importance of the meeting in the shadow.

      BTW: That’s what our ultimate aim at Unified Inbox is, but I guess you knew this already :) Once everything is in one place, then only we can start making sense of it, analysing it and delivering a more intelligent and personalized solution to the connective and collective overload we’re exposed to today.

  12. Hi Toby, nice to hear you have found new way to travel: get lost :) Anyway it is occasionally very good to be alone. Especially when having very busy at work. For me it is important to have time for just for myself. I am wondering if we are nowadays even too connected, it is almost impossible to spend a whole day without reading e-mails, facebook etc. Maybe we should start to write letters and send them by post, using “walknet”. And please try to find way back too…

    • “Get lost” :) funny. Without a certain loneliness, or rather a solitude of some sort – at least sometimes – I think it’s hard to achieve real inspiration. It’s that beautiful moment when all the experiences, impressions and every color, information and thing that has hit us before, suddenly makes sense. We need to make time for such moments.

  13. Hey Toby, I am glad that your trip is bringing insights.

    This made me think of a time when I did five-day retreat by myself down in the Coromandel.  Every day after I had my lunch, rather than sitting and trying to meditate and feeling sleepy, I walked to the top of this giant hill near where I was staying.  From the top I could look down either side of the coromandel and see the ocean on both sides.

    The top of the hill was the only place around the had cellphone reception so I would quickly call Mari, my wife, and make sure everything is okay at home.  But on the last day I forgot to turn my phone off after I called her and on the way down I got a voicemail.  It was my dad telling me that he arrived in Auckland and was waiting at the hotel for me to pick him up. I had completely forgotten that he was coming to visit, and I was four hours drive away!  In that instant I felt my mind start to spool up like an engine and I realised that this is what it’s like all the time.  This constant state of agitation.  It is just that for the last five days it had actually quietened down.  

    I think you are right that taking time to get away from the constant distractions in our lives gives us an opportunity to do something that we used to do but don’t do very much these days, which is to actually experience reality, not just watch it and commenting from the sidelines.

    Good stuff!

    • This is a wonderful experience to share, thanks for doing so. I’m sure others could relate to it and see more and more thought leaders in the space making it bigger priority for entrepreneurs and anybody else having a busy life with being immersed in digital/technology all the time to take a step back and (hopefully) enjoy the view.

  14. Great post, well for me leaving my handy would be a great recipe to feel the “power of unlocation” especially in India :)

  15. Looks interesting,this is what I used to do earlier when Kerala startups was not keeping me busy. I used to travel to remote locations around Trivandrum. The first part of this is getting dressed in such a way that nobody will recognize you. Then go to the bus top, get into the first bus that comes. Take a ticket to the last stop. Get down and start walking until you get tired. I usually comeback by evening.

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