April 3, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
I was recently in the lobby of a hotel in Washington, D.C., at the National Association of Counties' Legislative Conference. The sessions were over for the day, so I sat down at a computer table, plugged in my brick, fired up the laptop, paid for a day's worth of hotel wifi, ordered a beer and set to work. At some point I stopped to look around and everyone else was working on tablets or smart phones. With black cords snaking around the table top, and a computer bag, mouse, earphones, tape recorder, extra computer battery, Daytimer, file folders and a paperback book, I felt like a WWII radio operator set down in some post-war dream of the future, where cars flew and dishes washed themselves.
It's as if I had a house without electricity and was stringing extension cords from a gasoline generator through the house to run the refrigerator and TV. That was me, and I didn't like it.
Up until that point I felt pretty good. I had a self-contained office in my shoulder bag. Everything I could do at the office, I could do in the hotel lobby. Except drink free coffee.
The only advantage I had over the mobile people was a big QWERTY keyboard -- I have a keyboard and I know how to use it. One thing writers learn is that after a while, your fingers do the thinking and typing, and since the fingers belong to you, you claim the writing as well. So the feel of the fingers on the keyboard is important. The well-muscled fingers of the Underwood manual typist have given way to thin runway-model fingers that tap instead of work, but they still continue to think, so that's reassuring. However, tapping on the glass face of an iPhone or a Kindle or an iPad is not the same as keys that move and give a nice little clack when you hit them. The cheery tapping of the keyboard is also music to one's editor who assumes it signifies progress toward the completion of an assignment several days past due. And so, grasping for some shred of dignity, I came upon the idea that I was a creator, not a consumer, of information. I felt a little better.
Still, surrounded by wires, I felt like an anachronism. Like in the mid 1970s -- when @ meant "at" as in "2 bushels of millet @ 80¢ per hundredweight" (and typewriters had a key for "cent") -- I rode my bicycle out to the Oregon coast for a writer's conference toting a portable typewriter, manuscript folders and carbon paper along with my camping equipment. Or, when in the early 1990s, I carried a Macintosh Plus in a backpack the size of a hotel room refrigerator. Bigger was better than nothing.
But now, in a time when you can't tell the Bluetooth users from the homeless -- they're all talking to invisible people -- in a time where tailgaters send text messages and lone drivers LOL; in a time when people walk the streets with blue lights blinking from their heads; in this future time, I too must embrace my inner wireless and join the parade of progress. I now have an iPhone that tells me where to go, and a Kindle that will reportedly carry 3,000 books without any weight gain. My wife bought them for me, so I blame her.
But I cannot tell a lie. I love my mobile devices. My folders are all "e" now, and backed up in Dropbox. My calendar tells me when a story is overdue, my mother calls me on Skype, I'm reading books like never before. The only paper at my desk is a photo, and some Post-it Notes with passwords on them. Some things never change.
Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?