In the six or seven years that I’ve had mostly reliable high-speed Internet in my office, I’ve become habituated to the everpresence of the network. And in the year or two that WiFi has been available at Timothy’s the Formosa Tea House — my “when I’m not at work or home” places — it’s a rare hour that I’m outside of the warm embrace of the net.
In addition to the “you can never go home [from work]” challenges that this has presented, it’s also led me to forget how things used to be, when we dialed into the Internet over the phone, and paid (and paid dearly, at least in the beginning) by the minute.
Back then using the Internet was like visiting the town well: you wrote up your email, prepared your HTML files for upload, and then, in one big “as quick as possible” dial-up session, you did your business. Then you disconnected until the next time.
Much of the focus on high-speed DSL and cable Internet has been on the additional bandwidth it offers, and, with that, the ability to transfer large audio and video files, play almost-realtime game, and the like.
Here in the French hinterlands, however, I’m forced to remember that the other change brought on by broadband is that it allows for synchronous use of the Internet.
We no longer visit the well every day: we’ve installed indoor plumbing and have a near-endless supply of water at the ready whenever we need it.
My situation here takes me to an interesting alloy of the old and the new: when I drive up the road to borrow some WiFi, I’m plugging in to high-speed Internet access — indeed it’s often faster than at home.
So I can update my podcasts, download large data files, and generally use the Internet at speeds to which I’ve become accustomed.
But I’m only online as long as I’m at the well.
So I write all of my email in advance, come armed with a list of websites that I need to consult, and once I’m online I “surf the web” largely by downloading RSS feeds into a newsreader for later reading.
It’s amazing what this does for my productivity. Not only because I don’t have millions of websites to distract me from my work, but also because the focus required to plan for my daily WiFi assaults makes me think in much greater detail about what it is I’m working on, what I need to continue, who I need to hear back from, and so on.
I’m a strong believer in, and builder of, the synchronous web. Almost all of the programming I do these days consists of building applications that run inside a web browser, applications that assume — demand — that the person using them is online.
I find it interesting that two relatively recent (and closely related) phenomena — RSS and podcasting — enable, among many other things, effective use of the web without connectivity. By allowing for asynchronous access to information — grab now, use later — technologies like these make total connectivity far less important than I’m used to.
One of the other things I’ve noticed here in France is that my now temporarily-asynchronous working life is far more relaxed than I’m used to. Part of this I can credit to good wine and clean air; but in no small way my stress has melted away in direct proportion to the decrease in the various “you’ve got mail” bleeps and bloops and telephones ringing and server alarms going off.
In a sense I’ve gone back to using the Internet on my terms: when, where and how it suits me. I’ve discovered that perhaps “always on” isn’t such a good thing, especially when it means that I’m always on too.
This peace isn’t sustainable — at least I don’t think it is. I’ve got a team back at home listening for the bleeps and bloops in my stead, and a set of colleagues who are willing to put up with the peculiarities brought on by a little bit of asychronosity for this month. Eventually I’ll have to return to my synchronous life.
But it’s worth spending some disconnected time out here if only to realize how connected I’ve actually become.
The other thing I’ve discovered here is just how powerful my little computer is. Again because I’m used to building web-based applications, I tend to treat my workstation as simply a skin over the network, and I forget that inside my little Apple beats a fairly capable heart in its own right.
Because I just can’t stop working completely, I’ve set up a pretty reasonable facsimile of the Internet, or at least my little part of it, here on my laptop. I’m running MySQL on several million-record databases. I’m running the Apache webserver (handily built in to Mac OS X), and developing applications in PHP (also part of OS X).
With that, who needs the Internet?