in Technology and Society

Envisioning the disconnected movement

I remember a few years ago reading about some official from the FCC stating that, in the future, people will no longer have what we think of as home phones, but will all have their personal phones/numbers. I also remember thinking that this sounded utterly ridiculous and unthinkable. And yet, of course, then came mobile phones, and today I find myself on a monthly basis rationalizing having both a land line and a cell phone. The idea of not having a land line would have seemed unthinkable to me only a few years ago. But I can imagine, only a few short years from now, the idea of a land line seeming a bit quaint.

A few years before that (as in ca 1994), the idea of The Web was still pretty much alien to me. I remember going into Border’s books on Liberty and State in Ann Arbor, and picking up books on the Internet and the World Wide Web, just to figure out what the difference was between the two. Looking back, it seems so pedantic. This was the age of Mosaic and Gopher and the web as the techno-utopian Savior. And then came Amazon and eBay and Yahoo! (considering that they still are three of the biggest sites on web, you have to wonder how much really has changed since then), and the web lost some its innocence (ok, the innocence thing was pretty much out the door as soon as UseNet got overrun with porn, and I am not sure if UseNet ever was not overrun with porn.)

These were the days when you’d take surveys asking how much time you spend online: “Do you spend more than an hour per week online?”  Today, or not too far from today, that is almost like asking “How much time in a day do you spend using electricity?” Being online was an active decision. You logged onto the Internet, tried not to use up all your precious minutes, and then got off the Internet.

Today, I hit the space bar on my laptop and if there is a wireless network within range, I’m connected. And as wireless networks become cheaper and more pervasive (as in the death of  the “hotspot”), I think the whole idea of being online will vanish. Instead, turning on your computer (or your PDA or whatever) is synonymous with being online.  Everything will be turned on its head and being off-line will be the extraordinary state, just like a power outage is an extraordinary event.

Aside from the sociological responses to this, which we see already sprouting up here and there today, such as the “No Cell Phones” sign at Brooklyn Social, one of my favorite local hangouts, equivalent to a No Smoking section, except what you’re forbidding isn’t so much unhealthy biologically as it might be psychologically.  As technology and connectivity become increasingly pervasive, and increasingly intimate, as in the phone going from being something you used at the post office (yes, making a call was once akin to going out for groceries) to something you had in the hallway of your home, to something in your kitchen, to something on your bedside table that could wake you at any hour, to this little thing we now carry around that vibrates in our pants.

It will likely end up being something implanted in your body. Yup, that might sound scary, but having a communication device implant may not be something out of a paranoid Philip K. Dick story but a reality before too long, and there is the inevitability of a reaction to this, akin to the Slow Foods movement which attracts urban types seeking to counter the fast pace of city life, such as what I would call the Disconnected Movement, where you would go offline, maybe pay money to be able to disconnect The Leash that is what always-on wireless connectivity effectively becomes.

Sort of ironic. I wonder if there will be “No Internet” cafes, in which connectivity is blocked out, or “Disconnected Cruises” where there will be no email or cell phones. It might seem far-fetched, though I can imagine myself going on such a cruise a few years from now.