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Unwired

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Technology is a beautiful thing. And we live in an age where its exponential march can be not just witnessed, but gloriously experienced every single minute. Back in the day, despite the best efforts of our brightest minds, most inventive individuals and collective enterprise, humanity could not compress the arc of progress from, say, a slingshot to a catapult, into one lifetime. Today, however, we can see and benefit from a similar magnitude of technological advancement in about a day - or as long as it takes for someone to post the new App on iTunes.

This is both wondrous and onerous, and for the same basic reasons. We're now, as a society, so high tech - teetering on the verge of yet-more-exponentially amazing revolutions in robotics, holography, and Minority Report -style information and communication management-that it's freakin' scary. There's no avoiding this advent in any quarter; it's time to get on the train or be run over by it. Or at least that's the message both media and commercial sectors are delivering - via text, email, tweet, FB post and a variety of more traditional means. But there's a problem with shilling all this technology to make our lives better/easier. Or, more succinctly, with developing a reliance - indeed trust - on ever-higher technology: technology itself.

Let's say you used a slingshot for food procurement. If it broke, you could easily make a new one - the design and action were easily understood, materials readily available. Plus there were a plethora of not-so-efficient backups at hand: spears, arrows, clubs etc. Animals would get killed, peeps would not go hungry. But with today's linking and tethering and hyper-connectivity, the failure, breakage or loss of your slingshot (cellphone/computer/touch pad) results in a major catastrophe that can often take days or weeks to resolve. If information is your sustenance, you may go hungry for a while. You won't starve to death, of course, but navigating what should be the simple blips of daily life will be difficult. Solving the problem would be a lot easier if you were, well... connected. But you're not.

I'm currently writing this in a van driving down a highway in Chile on my way to the storied ski area of Portillo. I'm down here working and need to get shit done so this ability is a good thing. When I get to the hotel I'll file this column over a wireless network. Also wondrous. But this entire trip has, so far, been plagued by problems, and every one of them has to do with modern technology and the level of buy-in someone like myself might make without thinking about the consequences.

This kind of travel, I've realized, used to be simpler. You had an airline ticket in hand, and arrangements printed on a piece of paper. These had been made far in advance via phone, fax or mail. Because of the time-lag implicit in arrangements for hotels, transportation etc., people went to great pains to honour them. They did not expect to be able to get a hold of you while you were traveling. They didn't expect you to turn on your 3G phone the second your plane touched down (and long before you got the official okay from flight attendants) to check your texts, email and phone messages. They didn't figure on calling you en route. If a change in arrangements occurred, they covered it for you or sent someone else to. Your journey was unlikely to see you falling into the kind of vacuum created when high tech lays you low. Being off the grid actually came with specific entry and exit coordinates that were understood by everyone and built into all actions and services. The expectation of constant availability has changed this equation for the worse.

You wouldn't, for instance, arrive at an airport in a very foreign country and have to boot up your computer to find out if the visa you paid for 9.5 years ago was still valid. Because that information, you vaguely recall, is buried in an email somewhere. An email that you will never find during the half-hour you're in line to buy a new one. This, plus the delay at immigration when their machines find your passport invalid, and they want to know why it was issued for only one year (a digital snafu later corrected but never believed), plus the delay at customs because you're carrying too many personal items that are now technically classed as "computers" (when you're only allowed one), plus the delay when your ski bag doesn't appear because of a tag-scanning error, will make your exit into the airport an hour later than expected so that no hotel transfer is waiting to lift you the two hours into the mountains. Ah, you think, I have a phone number to call in this eventuality-in an email somewhere. While searching for this you pull out your trusty international phone to smoothly and smugly solve the problem only to find the battery has been killed by a combination of having to show your e-ticket code-stamp 1,000 times and a live, blue-toothing, power-sucking keyboard buried in the same bag. Your friend's phone is live but he doesn't have the requisite roaming. So you can't call anyone. There's always the pay-phone route but... just try finding one these days. Anywhere. You're marooned and momentarily stunned: there is not, as you would expect/hope/assume, a technological fix to this dilemma.

You will find that you have to rely on something so old school that it makes the $5,000 tech failure seem almost absurd: the kindness of a stranger.

Technology can suck. But people are always a beautiful thing.

 

 

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