Thursday, June 09, 2011

WiFi? BecauseFi!

The U.N. issued a report a few days ago that asserts that -- under the umbrella of free expression -- internet access is a basic human right.  It's largely a commentary on the role that the internet has had in stirring up and organizing the populations involved in the so-called "Arab Spring" outbreak of democratic action in the Middle East.

When I traveled to Europe two weeks ago, I debated whether or not to bring some electronic gadgets.  Should I bring my netbook?  It's small and practically disposable, has good battery life, and allows the offloading of photos, checking of email, posting of blog entries, etc.  Should I bring my phone?  It won't work on the European cell systems, but it does have WIFI and could be pressed into service as a pocket portable internet gateway, should I find some Burger King that has free connections.  Should I bring my tablet, which in between the two: too large to fit in a pocket, too small to do much typing?

In the end, I brought nothing.  That allowed me to avoid bringing voltage adapters or sponging off someone else's adapters.  It made it straightforward to move through airport security, allowing them to focus on other bizarre things I was bringing, such as the two extra trombone mouthpieces in my carry-on.  This choice meant that, as with the previous FCBB tour in 2009, I had no internet connection to the world abroad.  I could still watch TV every day, still see newspapers, still hear the radio, of course.  But the personalized level of the internet (seeing MY news, seeing MY mail, seeing MY favorite sites) was impossible.

In the short term, that was fine.  I didn't need to pay any bills: I'd taken care of scheduling in advance for the two weeks I'd be gone.  I didn't need to be able to stream music: most of the time, there wasn't any opportunity.  While I could have made use of GPS and maps (I still don't know how I didn't make it to Sacre Coeur in Paris!), most of the touristy places had paper maps or sidewalk kiosks to let you know how to get around.  And while I was deprived of the connected stream of updates from various friends doing various things, it wasn't terrible to get away from that.

Not everyone was so ascetic with their electrons.  Some came laden with laptops, iPads, phones, cameras, video cameras, MP3 players, Kindles, Nooks, tablets, and audio recorders.  And the most common technology complaint was the general lack in Europe of cheap and easily-accessible internet.

For whatever regulatory and utility reasons, commercial WIFI is usually quite spendy by my American standards.  The first hotel we stayed in was wonderful.  Tucked off the motorway, it was surrounded by trees, had a hiking trail to the ruins of a 14th century abbey, had a large rolling field with lake just behind it, a wonderful dining experience, and comfortable rooms.  Oh, and WIFI accessible for 5 GBP per hour -- that's about $8.20 in our Yankee money.  For the more budget conscious, you could get 24 hours for 16 pounds, a nervous-cough-inducing $26.

I don't suspect this is *that* much more outrageous than American hotels may charge, when they charge.  WHEN the charge, as most offer WIFI for free.  The same with cafes and restaurants.  Every Panera in the states has free WiFi, except during the lunch rush.  Few cafes in Europe do, and those that did often had such a degraded signal as to be worthless.

Some members of the party were up in arms.  You could practically hear them shouting in their heads about how "unAmerican" this is.  One wondered aloud if Europe was still in the Dark Ages.

I won't debate that it would be very fun to video chat wirelessly with family in America while touring around.  "Hi, mom.  I'm at the Louvre and my friend Lisa says 'hi'.  Or do you prefer to be called 'Mona'?"  And having internet access at whatever cost allowed one of the members to cancel credit cards and order replacements after having his wallet thieved on the Paris underground. 

I for one didn't think I was having my rights violated to be stuck without internet.  The differences would be pronounced if I was trying to protest or make my voice heard and the government kept shutting off the internet and the cell phones to keep the people in the dark. 

It places any sense of fussy entitlement at not being able to share a picture of the croque et frites I had in Honfluer a little further into perspective.

1 comment:

  1. I recently found myself on an adventure filled trip myself where I faced a somewhat similar technological challenge.

    My wife and I visited a Graduate school friend of hers in western New York. We arrived to discover that their house was unfortunately without electricity following some severe thunderstorms that had rolled through two days prior. With out power, and with no back-up generator, they had also lost access to running water as their well pump sat dormant.

    It was a weekend of shared candles, fresh delicious local spring water, improvised meals using the gas grill, and trips to a friends nearby house for greatly appreciated showers. I would not have had it play out any other way. In many ways, this was a trip back in time!

    Sure, I'll be honest and admit that everyone involved missed (some more than others) having electricity and the creature comforts it provides. I had to remind myself that the majority of humans used to live like this 365 days a year. That was the way life was played for a long, long time.

    Personally, I loved it! I enjoyed not having time that was spent individually, plugged into a device or attached to a screen. All we had was each other for company, conversation, and cohabitation. Human interaction from beginning to end, from sun up to sun down.

    We spent time exploring the forest, taking a dip in a fast moving river, snapping pictures of waterfalls, and even a little SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding). I missed my motorcycle with some of the twisty roads we encountered, I admit. All in all, just a truly fantastic trip any way you look at it.

    I enjoyed the experience enough that I am motivated (and determined) to have some no-electricity blocks of time at home. As much time as Brown Bear enjoys spending with the phone/computer/TV, I understand why she didn't seem that excited with idea but I think it she will come around to it.

    I enjoy technology, in fact, my career is deeply, deeply rooted in it. I also know that if presented with the right scenario (like having all those I love and everything I need to survive within biking distance), I'd gladly leave the vast majority of time absorbing technology behind. But that's not the world we live in, is it?

    The line between time absorbing technology and contribution technology does not exist to most of us.