Shock and Awe When the IT Stops

Editor’s Note: Terry Calhoun transmitted this column, with his laptop balanced on a garbage can, via a random wireless connection for reasons that will become clear as you read further.

I just found out about shock and awe IT style first-hand. I have no idea why Mozilla Thunderbird crashed on me this morning. First I could not send any messages, not through my “umich” nor my “scup” identity. Then my inbox disappeared. Then Thunderbird refused to boot up at all yet, when I reinstalled it, Windows told me that I couldn’t install it – because it was already running. Of course, I could not see or use it.

Then, our local area network went down and no one had email or Web, and I could not download a new installation file. Following that, I rebooted my Vaio laptop and it refused to boot up at all. Completely gone, among other things, was my opinion column for this week. This happened while SCUP was transmitting a special 2-hour Webcast to 150 college campuses which I had managed for the past year. What a panic, at first, until we realized that only our office had the problem. The show went fine for everyone else.

Sigh. Then, when our Webcast was over, I was faced with the choice of remembering what I had written, or quickly writing about my reaction to and the experience of . . . losing everything. As you can tell, I have chosen to write about losing everything.

Actually, maybe what I just experienced was a “media disrupt,” as I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, followed by collateral damage (loss of data) from the interrupt.

I feel a certain sympathy with one early pioneer in wearable computing who, more than four years ago, was trying to live as much of his life as possible with the experience mediated through computing technology. He had spent quite a long period of time, as I remember, living with headgear through which he experienced the world around him via video camera instead of directly with his eyes. (I would have his name and more details, except that I am writing this without the Internet and am not quite sure how I am going to send it off to my editor when I am done!)

Then, at some point in early October, 2001, security guards forced the removal of his headpiece as he tried to board a regularly scheduled airline flight and the descriptions of his shock and disorientation as he experienced a severe “media interrupt” were horrifying.

The implications of what the respected college and university thinker and writer, George Keller, once described at a SCUP conference as “living our lives through screens” – desktop, laptop, television, cell phone, and more, can seem disturbing. And I think we live our lives mediated through more screens than George d'es. I include the windows in our buildings that do not open. How real is the outside when, given current technology, you could be looking into a video screen and not know the difference?

Let’s think about car windshields for a moment: One observation that I frequently make is that most drivers, especially on highways, may have the same sort of brain functioning going on when they drive as when they are watching a television set. Maybe it comes from too much “living through screens” or not. But what else can explain a line of 30 automobiles going 70+ miles per hours, each less than 15 feet from the one in front?

If those drivers woke up to the real world and had the mental protection of being safe because they’re viewing their surroundings through a screen, I’ve got to think that they might freak out and experience what the “wearable computing guy” did. But instead of falling down the airplane entryway, they might crash. (Or slow down, pull over, start shaking, and never drive again? Nah.)

The fact is that we all do live our lives through screens. (Maybe I’ll give up dancing around the word and say “windows” from hereon in.) I also recently wrote about the Digital Middletown study which found that its subjects spent 70 percent of their waking hours interacting with media of some sort. And where do we find that media? Through the windows opened up to what is increasingly becoming our realer-than-real digital world.

Don’t for a moment think that I am arguing against screens and digital technology. I love it. I was born for it and am glad I have not missed this part of its evolution. But let’s tally up my day:

· Wake up and immediately start looking out the windows in my bedroom to check out the weather and the great view;
· Walk to the bathroom, glancing out the windows of my front porch and living room on the way;
· Do the personal grooming thing, looking out the bathroom window at the sky and the evergreens to the east of my home;
· Eat breakfast sitting at the counter top and looking out my huge dining room windows
· While doing, checking email and the Drudge Report on my Microsoft Windows;
· Then I drive or ride to work, watching my surroundings change through car windows;
· Ride up to the third floor at work in the glass-walled elevator, watching the world outside as I rise;
· Sit behind my desk, looking out a physical window that I cannot open;
· And spend my workday interacting with the world through my number one laptop screen, my number two laptop screen, the large flat-screen monitor which I can hook to either one, and my Treo 650’s tiny little screen;
· Ride home looking out windows;
· Then read several newspapers sitting at the same countertop where I had breakfast, looking out at my private disc golf course and maintaining constant Internet connection for email and Web at the same time;
· Repeat, in reverse order, the early morning routine.

Yep. I live my life through screens/windows. The best I feel all day is when I have the daylight time to walk around my course and examine the plants, trim some trees, pick some leaves and flowers.

Yet . . . I love this digital, windowed world. It has become a part of my life, and the shock and awe that I would experience if it all went away would be devastating. I would no longer have access to the stream of information and knowledge that I think is helping me to become a wise, old man.

I hope you did not think I’ve rambled too much. The point I’d like to get to, but don’t have the time for right now, is that those experiences through digital windows, especially, are becoming so necessary to the new generation that we’ve really got to take seriously:

(a) That it needs to be seen as a necessary utility or part of life and we have to ensure that everyone has good access to it all; and
(b) At the same time, there are going to be intense collateral consequences as the digitization of our experience continues.

Yet, how do people who don’t have the luxury, like me, of private, beautiful acreage to walk on get the necessary(?) “real” input to their daily lives that I get from walking on my course? Especially when they don’t even want to!

I think the final straw, for me, is television on cell phones. You’ll notice that I didn’t mention TV in my daily routine, above. That’s because I don’t watch TV; can’t stand it.

So, when I lost my email and Web and my intended opinion piece today, the shock I felt was partly from that and partly from the background shock my feeble mind is suffering picturing being surrounded someday soon by dozens of other people, in public, not only talking to the air, but watching television as they walk along. That really puts me in a shaky mood.

Q: What happens, very soon, when we are in a hotel room and simply cannot determine whether the view from the window is real or simulated? When the airplane window beside us is touch screen and when our views through it are digital, enhanced by all sorts of GIS data and related information? When a movie has human characters who were never human and we can’t tell.

A: I don’t know. But I will soon.

P.S. (And this is true!) I’ve just found out that our wireless and wired LAN is down and I can’t send any email at all. So I am now going to close the file, walk to Starbucks, and send this to my CT editor from there. Ciao.

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