Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Simple Life; or, Looking for Wireless in Whitehorse

It was about 6 months ago that I returned to Saskatoon after a 12,000-mile driving/camping trip to Alaska and Michigan and back. I loved that trip.

It was the simple life.

My friend Brenda and I slept in a tent when we didn’t have the opportunity of crashing on someone’s floor or, sometimes, slightly better conditions. (I dimly remember a bed every once in awhile. That was lovely.)

We bought a few groceries every so often and sometimes cooked over a fire. We ate out a few times, but not very often.

We stopped on almost every long driving day to get at least one walk or hike in. We stopped for bears and herds of bison crossing the road and took detours down gravel roads to see waterfalls. We experienced many beautiful things firsthand.

That is to say, in many ways, it was a very simple, physical, elemental time. And yet, besides the wonderful people we spent time with and the natural beauties we experienced, some of the things I’m most thankful for from the trip were technology-related. I’ll just list a few of them:

  • An iPod with FM transmitter: Since I was moving to Saskatoon, we had a U-Haul truck for about 30 hours of the trip. With only a radio in a vehicle to help the driver stay awake, an iPod with an 8-hour mix made just for the trip—and with audio books on it for the occasional change of pace—was just the thing. And if the other person was asleep, it was safer for the driver to not have to change CDs all the time.
  • A digital camera: I’d used a digital camera at work before, but this was my first vacation with one. We borrowed a digital camera from some of Brenda’s friends, and it was lovely to look at our pictures right away—and not have to worry about wasting film.
  • A laptop and wireless: I’d had a laptop before, but I’d mostly used it at home and had only gotten a wireless card a few months before, but I hadn't tried out the wireless away from home much. It was lovely—and sort of amusing—how excited we’d get when we found a coffee shop, ice cream shop, or restaurant with free wireless so we could send emails and get online.
  • A travel blog: Lots of people we knew wanted to hear about our adventures. But we didn’t necessarily want the rest of the world to hear. So I hunted up, which for a small fee would let us have a password-protected blog complete with 120 photos, maps to show where we were going and where we’d been, a guest book, and unlimited entries for two months. It was just the right way to tell our friends and families about our adventures without sharing them with the whole world. We could have just kept personal journals and told stories, but it wouldn't have been the same.

I’m definitely not the sort of person who likes camping with a TV and all the other conveniences. But I can’t deny that these items—made out of complex technology—enhanced the trip. For that matter, they give me an easy way to look back at it when I’m feeling nostalgic, as I am today. All I have to do is simply turn on my Sask-Alaskan Adventure mix on my iPod, open up my album in iPhoto and read my archived version of the blog on my laptop.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Cluttertasking during the Olympics

As I’m writing this post, the TV is on in the background. I often find myself doing things like this lately, but last night that I realized something was wrong. That is, I was having trouble just watching the Olympics without doing something else. I was playing solitaire at the same time. Part of the evening, this worked—after all, I didn’t feel much need to actually watch all of the downhill skiing, so I just used the commentary to cue me into the times I really wanted to look at the screen.

The problem came when I started watching figure skating. I really wanted to watch this event. But I found it hard to put down the laptop and just watch. I had to unglue my eyes from my game when it came to the key performances. I realized it was a bad thing.

This doesn’t always happen to me. When I’m completely healthy, it usually doesn’t, so when it does happen, it usually tells me something is wrong. Last night it was because I was tired and full of nervous energy at the same time. I couldn’t focus on the Olympics or anything else involving more brainpower. Nor could I focus on just the game. I needed lots of stimulus to keep me going until I could figure out what was bothering me and simultaneously tiring me out.

I know I’m not alone. One of my friends told me last week that only surfing the Web can keep him awake when he’s sleep-deprived. And another of my friends shares my predilection for solitaire as a cue to examine what’s wrong internally. And I don’t think we’re the only ones.

While this sort of thing--I like to call it "overtasking" or "cluttertasking"--has been made easier by the portability of laptops, I don’t think distracting ourselves is a new problem. I used to play solitaire the old-fashioned way when the TV was on. And even in the silence with no technology, there are ways of blocking out thoughts we want to avoid. In the olden days, they used to have drugs and alcohol for a similar purpose. :)

If anything, technology seems to be a healthier way of dealing with avoidance. But it’s still something to keep an eye on. If I catch myself doing it, I usually follow it up with some analysis to try to figure out what’s going on. It’s important not just for my emotional health, but also for my creativity. Staring blankly at one screen while vaguely listening to another isn’t exactly the way to stimulate my ideas. Watching TV or movies can help build on my ideas at times. And playing mindless games like solitaire can help me to think through things. But not this particular form of watching TV mixed with solitaire. At least it didn't last night.

So, keeping that in mind, I think I'm going to post this so I can watch the Olympics. I think I'd like to actually watch the downhill skiing tonight.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Is Technology Eroding Our Memories? Part 2

I’ve been thinking more about to what extent technology builds and erodes our memories, and if it’s a change from before we had the technologies.

It’s true that, now that all my phone numbers are loaded on my cell phone, I remember very few phone numbers anymore. In a dead cell-phone survivalist situation, that wouldn’t be a good thing, necessarily.

And speaking of cell phones, they tend to be poorly used as memory devices at times. Take my friend’s brother, who is terrible with navigating but has to travel for work a lot, so every time he drives into a new city, he calls a family member to look up the maps and talk him through it. There’s something wrong about that.

So clearly, there’s some sort of erosion going on, as the article claims. But I wonder if it’s all that different from my father’s memory (hi dad!). He’s been claiming to have a terrible memory for years, but you ask him who was pitching in the 1981 Cubs game he attended and he’ll tell you exactly what happened during the game.

The point is that that we’ve always (some more than others) specialized in the kind of knowledge we remember. We’ve always had a huge body of knowledge out there that wasn’t in our heads, and we’ve always chosen what we want to retain.

I’m not entirely sure whether in general the amount of stuff we know in our heads has gotten smaller or not. What seems clear is that there’s a lot more information out there from which to pick and choose. Whether or not our memories have gotten worse, it could easily seem like they have in proportion to the body of information that’s out there. And what we remember has certainly changed in some ways.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Is Technology Eroding our Memories? Part 1

This is the Google Side of Your Brain: This article, which is from a couple of months ago on USAToday, contains some fascinating comments about how Google may be taking the place of our memories. Instead of remembering facts, when we have Google, we can just look it up.

In some senses, this is probably true in a growing segment of the population. But I don’t think the Internet is necessarily turning us all into dolts either. I and many other people use the Internet to expand our memorized knowledge on a regular basis.

Case in point: regular emails and RSS feeds that help us learn new things on an ongoing basis. Bookmarked sites that we check regularly to see what’s going on in a particular area of the world. These sorts of devices help us to actively expand our knowledge in a way we’ve chosen to have our knowledge expanded. They help our memories to get an ongoing sense of what’s going on in a particular area.

For instance, I know I’m bad about ignoring the news of the world, so if I didn’t get email news to let me know what’s going on in various parts of the world, I’d never be aware of what was going on. I still ignore the emails at times, but I remember more of what goes on in the world because I’m getting the emails. My memory might not be exact about what the articles said because I can mostly find them again through a search, but that doesn’t mean my knowledge and memory haven’t been slowly built by them.

Same goes for the poem a day I get from Minnesota Public Radio’s Writer’s Almanac. Because a poem a day appears in my inbox, I gradually get a sense of modern poetry I may not otherwise get around to seeking out. I remember the poems I like, and others I just absorb. Mostly I just bask in them, but somehow I remember bits of the ones I like and, since the poems are chosen well, I, over time, expand my knowledge of poetry as a whole.

There are lots of other examples, but my point is that the Internet can cut two ways when it comes to our memories—it can erode them, but it can also help us build them.