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Friday, May 14, 2010

In Defense Of Low Tech

The life of a digital gypsy. Sounds kind of fun, huh? Technically speaking, you could spend your whole life working, communicating, and wasting time without being plugged in somewhere. I mean eventually you would need to recharge the batteries on all your devices but think of it, using a cell phone to conduct business over the phone and a laptop to work on with a Wi-Fi signal at say, Panera. You could remotely work from home or at your favorite coffee bar.

Hell, if you were savvy enough you could make a good living without ever stepping foot inside an office or perhaps even own a residence. Companies would pay you to work for them, traveling the world, squatting in an empty cubicle in their office and housing you at a hotel or some sort of alternate housing. You could be a Wi-Fi nomad. But what happens when the signal stops?

NPR recently ran a story about a digital gypsy who does everything without being connected by wires. If you can get past the interfaces of working on a smart phone or laptop then maybe that’s the life for you. Personally, I want a hardwired connection somewhere in my life. I have digital voice for phone and while it may be nice to have something shiny and high tech I recently wanted to go back to the old rotary phones of the 70s and early 80s. Why? We had a little thing lovingly called Snowmageddon this past Winter. We suffered through severe snowfall that darkened the homes of numerous customers up and down the Mid Atlantic. I was without power for two days.

Ok, that doesn’t sound that awful. Sounds like camp. Well, it’s not. I’m not saying that I was close to jumping the cliff because I didn’t have cable or couldn’t harvest my crops or play Bejeweled Blitz. But three things took place that forced me to vacate my home until the power came back on there.

  1. First and foremost, the heat. We had no heat in the house and the temperatures dropped into the 40s by the end of the first day.
  2. No power means no good sleep. I am a CPAP user and without power, sleeping is rough for someone who quits breathing while they are asleep.
  3. No power means no phone. Again, I have digital voice that runs through a modem fed by my cable company. I can’t just pick up a corded phone and call someone. Granted we have cell phones, but see how low tech would have triumphed here?
  4. No power means no Internet. Oh the horror. Since I run an online business as a side gig, I could not update this blog, my websites, or my websites’ blog. This is, of course, the least problematic thing I experienced.
Now, I know there were people in more dire situations than mine. A man died waiting for paramedics to get to his house through poorly plowed streets. But think of how many people rely on power and wireless signal to do anything.

I may be Chicken Little but haven’t we seen, firsthand, how putting all our eggs in one basket is a bad thing. We let the banks run amok and we ended up in serious trouble. The automotive industry collapsed and people lost their jobs. People lost their homes. America lost its financial footing and we are still coming back from the brink. Take that lesson and apply it to the Internet and wireless technology. What if we find ourselves without a signal?

IT experts will tell you the Internet’s infrastructure is built for redundancy, that it withstands numerous attacks from hackers, viruses, or anything as simple as a undersea cable being severed. But how long can we continue to rely on something so vastly complex and touchy. How long before we have some sort of EMP disaster that slows us down to a 14.4k speed. Remember Wargames? Same idea. Somewhere in all of this wireless world we need to have a cord plugged in somewhere. In our financial industry, our defense and security infrastructure, and our basic city infrastructure.

Here’s another example. NYT is removing a number of routes from its service to save money wherein they will have to spend an ungodly amount to redo all the signage for subways, bus lines, and maps and ticketing. While it might be less expensive to maintain digital signage and the use of apps for smart phones to be able to freely change information on the fly and reduce the need for costly revisions, what happens if we have a power outage like we did in 2006. Granted the transportation system might be affected but taxis and busses can still run. What if that outage extends into weeks? People, unfamiliar with the layout of Manhattan will not have any way to navigate around. Eventually, old printed signage will have to be brought out costing more money to install and maintain until Con Edison comes back up and running.

Everyone talks about business continuance and disaster recovery of online systems but are we truly prepared to address a situation that involves no t having any systems? How many times have you walked into a room and tried the light switch when you know the power is off? It’s habit. It’s not that you are checking for power. You are assuming it’s there. Can we afford to assume that the power will always be there? And it’s not like I’m spelling Die Hard 4 type of cynicism about our country's ability to handle a crisis. I’m talking in terms of the everyday digital gypsy. If we have a collapse of our networking infrastructure, how does someone who relies on it to do business expect to stay connected? Instead of the factory worker who gets laid off you have the white collar consultant. That person that squatted in a cubicle and lived at the Hyatt using his laptop and crackberry to make sure he could afford that latte habit would be isolated. There are more out there than you think and they are probably responsible for a lot of commerce that helps keep the economy chugging. They may be the second line of impact after the bigger systems like banking, agriculture, and automotive, but those industries might rely on the digital gypsy to keep them working.

For me, I want to stay plugged in somewhere. I want to know that when one thing fails, I have a backup plan. It may not be perfect, but it’s a start.

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