Digital Trumps Tangible In Times Of Crisis

Once again, the rain has rolled in, over the mountains, down the valley, and across the lake that has been our holiday home for the past two weeks. The water, which was at drought level prior to Christmas, is now dangerously high, submerging bike paths and lapping at the edges of the main street. Store owners are nervous. No insurance company in their right mind would write a policy to cover a lakefront shop against flood, and having to wade through an impromptu river to access the premises tends to put a damper on foot traffic. This is the great limitation of tangibility: there is no redundancy. It is a binary proposition; you are either accessible or you aren't.  

In other news, my office, which survived September's 7.1 magnitude earthquake and thousands of subsequent aftershocks, has finally succumbed. A new quake on Boxing Day, seemingly minor at only 4.9 but apparently vibrating at just the right frequency to resonate with the hundred-year-old bricks in our building, has rendered the premises unfit for occupancy. We are commercially homeless; digital gypsies.



It is astonishingly easy to take our wired world for granted. The other day, a friend complained about her iPhone: "If I go out of range and then come back in range, it doesn't realize it's back in range until I turn it off and back on again." I rolled my eyes and muttered, "Bloody Apple." But thanks to said digital access -- and in sad contrast to the lakefront retailers -- my business will easily recover from the quake. The bulk of our work takes place in the cloud. Our tools are our brains and easily transportable laptops. We have temporarily rented a couple of rooms from a friend's business, diverted phones and Internet connections, and will continue to operate with only the most minor of hiccups.

I've just begun to read Neil Postman's "Technopoly,"  which begins with Plato's story of the god Theuth sharing his invention of writing with King Thamus. Theuth claims that writing will improve both the wisdom and memory of the Egyptians, to which Thamus replies,

Theuth, my paragon of inventors, the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it. So it is in this; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your off-spring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

In the end, tools are but tools, and it is up to us to determine to what end they will be applied. But the fact remains, it is nothing short of miraculous that I can pick up a device smaller than a pack of cigarettes and use it to speak instantaneously with someone on the other side of the world. It is quite incredible that I can store terabytes of data online and access it from any computer, anywhere, with nothing more complicated than an Internet connection. It is mind-boggling that I can sit here, lakeside, and coordinate with insurers and arrange for new office space and write my column, watching the rain pour down and the fog continue its implacable progression across the waves.

It's a good time to be alive. Happy New Year; may you enjoy a joyous and prosperous 2011. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments or via @kcolbin.

1 comment about "Digital Trumps Tangible In Times Of Crisis".
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  1. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, January 7, 2011 at 7:49 p.m.

    Great Plato story... replace writing with digital and we've invented writing all over again. They were both right. And I think they both sides accurately describe digital too. Look where writing got us... it lead to (among other things) computer code and digital. These are exciting times.

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