The inspiration for this article was a news report about someone I know who bought a house and then had to sell it because they couldn’t get broadband there. It reminded me of a similar condition I experienced in 2002. I had moved into an apartment after being told by @home (which later became ATTBI, then Comcast) that I could receive broadband service there, only to move in and then be told by not only Comcast, but every DSL provider, that there was no service available when it came time to install.
In order to understand how punitive the experience was, you have to understand how I lived then.
Before moving to live with my partner I worked in customer service and I tended to move to wherever the job was, or as close as I could afford to live. My apartment’s accoutrements usually consisted of a plastic folding table, several PCs hacked together from salvage parts, two or three CRT monitors that I can’t even remember where they came from and a plastic crate to sit on, which contained spare keyboards, hard drives and other accessories and components.
I did not own furniture. All the money that would have been spent on furniture was spent on maintaining my computers. I eventually upgraded to an office chair that survived a celebratory ride down a steep driveway just prior to being loaded into a U-haul truck to be driven cross country to Boston. I would love to say that I had initially purchased furniture and then learned over time to stop doing it because I’d just have to load it into a truck when it was time to move again, as that would be quite romantic. The truth is I have never valued furniture and I prefer to sleep on the floor. I don’t enjoy owning furniture, and when I spend time with friends it’s usually in a public place, so there’s no need to try to impress them with my well appointed residence.
Living with dialup after having had cable Internet access at various residences over the last couple of years was an agonizing six months and not because I was a particularly hard core consumer of high bandwidth services. At the time there was no streaming music; no streaming movie services. All the content you wanted, you had to download and store locally on your hard drives. If I wanted an album of music to listen to I’d have to find it on a newsgroup, use a special application to download, assemble and decode thousands of text posts, check them against parity volumes for consistency, unzip them and burn them to a CD.
With only dialup Internet access the downloading was the worst part. I’d have to start the download process before I left for work or before I went to bed and hope the Rube-Goldberg-esque machine of auto-redialers, download managers and macros I had set up would successfully scrape all the data I needed to assemble an album of MP3’s, or an application I needed. I couldn’t download large files and use the connection for anything else at the same time because the latency would cause connections to time out.
As soon as my six month lease was up I moved.
I moved by bike because nobody in the house owned a car. I balanced boxes, monitors, computers etc. on my handlebars and rode them to the new place, then I carried the folding table on my shoulders for two miles to my new residence, which had cable Internet access.
Living there was a better arrangement than what I’d had before: For the previous three months or so, every night after work, I had been riding three miles home, loading my desktop computer onto my handlebars, riding two miles to my friend’s house, using their Internet connection for a few hours. I’d then load the computer onto the handlebars and ride it two miles home in the middle of the night.
For those of you reading this article in The Future: You have to understand what a desktop computer was at the time. I suspect that if it’s the year 2025 or later, you probably do most of your computing using a set of augmented reality glasses or some sort of handheld display similar to what we call a tablet here in 2015.
At the time, a desktop computer was about 3 feet tall by 1 foot wide by two and a half feet deep. It weighed around 25 lbs. It was made of sheet metal and thick plastic. And it was expensive. Although cobbled together from various throw-away parts, the cost to replace the unit altogether could be hundreds or even thousands of US dollars. Which was a lot of money at the time. If you dropped it, you were seriously fucked.
It’s early 2000-something and I’m sitting at a table in a public place in Portland with my laptop and my Windows Mobile based smartphone. I have an IRC window up and a browser with a Trillian session connecting me to ICQ, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Skype and Windows Messenger. I have a terminal up with an SSH session to my buddy’s home server where I’m running various applications in a Screen session.
Almost every person who walks by at least gives me a funny look. One in three stops to ask “is that a computer?” or “why do you have your computer here?”
The gallery of eyes on me and the visible level of discomfort on the faces of the other patrons would be daunting for someone who is bothered by such things; someone who hadn’t been tortured throughout rural public schooling for having an affinity for new technology.
In my sophomore year of high school I was accused of being a minion of Satan for making a computer sing. I had loaded a MOD player onto a floppy disk and played some music through the PC speaker of a PC with no sound card.
This laptop-in-public experiment was the first the first of many in a time when the society around me was beginning to awaken to an era of enhanced communication. An era I had been living in already for at least a decade.
While people around me were just getting used to the idea of carrying a mobile phone, I had already purchased, used, then given up a mobile device designed exclusively for sending instant messages. And I gave it up only because the service went out of business. My next purchase was a smartphone, if you could call Windows Mobile 3 “smart.”
I owned one of the first publicly available Android tablets. It was the Nationite MIDnite. It had a A8 CPU (suspiciously the same CPU that powered the first iPad), 2GB storage, 256MB RAM and ran Android 2.2. It was awful. Its resistive touch screen was nearly impossible to scroll on, it was made of cheap plastic with visible gaps between parts and the GPS never locked after sitting in clear view of the sky for 8 hours. But it was a tablet and nobody else had one.
Despite my assertion that tablets are merely a means of taking the keyboard away from consumers so they’ll spend more on content instead of communicating and creating, I have since owned a 7 inch Galaxy Tab, a Motorola Xoom, two Asus Transformers (I kept hoping they would fix the hinge problems) and several iPads.
In that time I have owned dozens of smartphones. Listing the smartphones I’ve owned could be an entire article. Just a sample of the operating systems I’ve had on smartphones over the years: PalmOS, Windows CE, Windows Mobile 3 and 4, Android (every version from 2.0 up), iOS, FirefoxOS, Sailfish, Ubuntu Touch. This doesn’t begin to enumerate the many feature phone OS’s that were hidden deep inside devices away from the prying eyes of consumers. In 2003 I was reading news articles on the bus using a WAP browser on a 1.5 inch monochrome display.
Why are you staring at your phone. Sorry sir, you can’t bring mobile phones in here you’ll have to take that back to your car. How did you send him a message without saying anything. How did you respond to my instant message without being at a computer.
Here we are in 2015. Broadband is classified as a utility. Most kids have smartphones and are texting before they enter school. Everyone who was born in the last 40 years has one, possibly two (one for work, one for personal use). Before the end of this decade, broadband Internet access will be considered as essential as running water and electricity.
We live in the hyper-connected world that was, just two decades ago, the masturbatory fantasy of telecommunications executives. The war on general purpose computing was fought against unarmed citizens. They’ve taken away your keyboards. They’ve made it illegal to run your own code on a computer you paid for and own outright. Most people who own a tablet or smartphone don’t even think of it as a “computer.” The thought that they could create software themselves and run it on their own phone doesn’t cross their minds. They think of software as products that come out of corporations like cheese burgers and flat screen televisions. The industry has taken away the idea of making software for fun and practical use.
You’re not even allowed to call it software anymore. It’s an app. You’re running apps. You buy apps. You download apps you bought. They’re apps. Don’t you call them software. Don’t you even label them applications. You take your apps and you pay for them and you run them and use them the way we tell you to, one at a time, and don’t you even switch to another app while you’re running ours because we know you’re stealing our content and sharing it. Thief.
Window manager? What’s that? Fuck you. You’ll look at one application at a time on this device that is capable of simultaneously running thirty applications and displaying them all at once. And you’ll like it. And in six months when your contract is up, coincidentally there will be a new iPhone, a new Galaxy ready for you to buy. And you’ll buy it subsidized, and you’ll renew that two-year ball and chain with your carrier. Because you can’t afford to buy the phone outright.
You’ll nickel and dime yourself into poverty buying apps and downloadable content. DLC, we call it. Brilliant. You see, we figured out that by giving you the game for free we can get you to commit to completion. Daddy told you never to quit until the job is done. Well, guess what. You’re never going to beat this game unless you buy our DLC. You need those coins to buy the armor upgrade that will boost you to the next level. Suck it up. Lick my yummy balls. Swallow that DLC. You know what, fuck it, just hand me your paycheck, you single celled organism.
They stare at their phones during lulls in conversation. Their children are handed tablets loaded with Dora the Explorer so they’ll clutch them and stare with dead eyes at the super high-resolution display instead of interacting with their parents. They send text messages while they’re driving. Smartphones and tablets can be loaded with mapping software that will give you door-to-door instructions on how to get anywhere, but if you ask, and I have asked…
Eight out of ten smartphone owners will tell you they’ve never used this capability, even when they were lost. They would rather use their phone to make a voice call. Talk to someone to have them take out a map to give them directions over the phone. They’d rather have someone give them verbal instructions and get lost along the way, possibly missing their appointment. They would rather do this than pull over to the side of the road; spend 5 minutes installing and opening Google Maps or Waze or Here.
Best Buy? Oh yeah, no, yeah, no, yeah yeah. You get on 280 and then get off at exit five six eight nine fifty two then go left for two blocks and turn right on San Carlos de Prieste Las Mingo De Pulges Fuego Martinez Blvd, then you… what the fuck am I doing? Just take out the phone you’re paying two thousand dollars for in a subsidized contract with your carrier and use a free mapping app.
Recently (and I do this occasionally): Sitting in a Starbucks with my Macbook, abruptly, without warning, I looked up at the person at the next table and said “Is that a computer? What are you doing with your computer in here?”