Tuesday, January 6, 2009


The week before Christmas, the New England area suffered severe ice storms. Many regions, including my own, lost power. Our neighborhood was blacked out for approximately a day and a half.

Unfortunately, although power was restored to our neighbors, falling branches had ripped the service lines off the side of our house, including power, cable, and phone. Because of the severity of the storm and the amount of damage, services were not restored to our house for eight days.

I am not complaining. In fact, we were amazed to wake up eight days later and find the line crew working on our house during a raging snow storm at 4:30 in the morning. Besides, since we had experienced two extended outages previously, we had bought a generator. So we had enough power to maintain heat, hot water, and lights in a few rooms. We were better off than many.

What was new was the loss of cable, which took with it our phone, TV, and internet connectivity. In previous outages we had lost power, but the phone and internet were available as long as the modem was up.

But even with a generator, no line to the house meant no cable. So I was without phone or internet for eight days.

I had plenty to keep me busy during the blackout. But I expected -- since I have been working with computers for almost 30 years and on the web for the last 10 almost 24 hours a day-- that I would miss the internet. Funny thing was, I didn't.

In fact, since power and cable have been restored, I have only returned occasionally to some blogs and web sites I read religiously pre-blackout. I didn't miss the news, I didn't miss the email and IM's from friends. Well, perhaps a little bit, but not nearly as much as I thought I would.

What I did find myself wanting back was my PC. Each time I walked into the office, I instinctively moved the mouse or pressed the shift key to switch off the power saver and bring the screen back to life. For the first day or two, I was surprised and disappointed when it didn't light up. By the third day, I instinctively reached for them, but stopped myself, realizing the power was off.

It wasn't the content I was missing. I could easily catch up with that later if I wanted to. (I didn't, in many cases.) What I missed was the physical companionship that my computer provides me.

It turns out my computer and keyboard have become a physical manifestation of the many virtual relationships I have with friends and colleagues. Some who I have never met; some who live only a few miles away from me; some who I only know through what they post to their blogs or websites but who I still consider compatriots in a common endeavor.

I would have happily sat in front of a blank screen in the dark. No browser, not email. Just a desktop. Why? What I was nostalgic for was the being connected. The people I knew and the ability to interact, whether I did or not. I didn't miss what they said or posted, because in almost all cases, the relationships are serendipitous. There is no telling in advance what will be said, shared, discussed. But it is the ability to share that my computer represents.

It is the sharing, not the having shared. It is the responding, not the accumulation of responses. It turns out the immediacy you experience in face-to-face interactions also happens online, but in an asynchronous fashion. Blog entries from a year ago are not old -- they are brand new when you encounter them. So your experience of the social network is a constant state of discovery, with each user's experience being unique based on the path they choose, links friends recommend, interests they pursue, etc.

Yes, it is the internet that enables these interactions. But what took me by surprise is that the visceral response is to the PC, the physical endpoint I speak through, the window I see through.

So I didn't miss the internet or the content the internet provides, I missed what the internet enabled and the people I have come to experience it with and who have become my friends.

No comments: