Just as we have in the past, this August my wife and I took the kids out west for a vacation. These vacations have increasingly become something of a respite from the rhythm and hum of the modern digital life, but they never leave the beat altogether.
Last year we went to Yellowstone and lost all touch with modern communications. As I wrote last year, losing touch became a theme for that trip. A friend, Joshua Gans, informed me that at Yellowstone we had moved off the grid. I liked this phrase so much I used it in my automated email message this year. It read:
“I am sorry, but I will not be able to return your email quickly. I am doing field work in the mountains, observing life off the grid until August 30th. I will try to respond as soon as I can. Thanks for your understanding.”
The automated message obviously affects a tongue-in-cheek tone. Now that I am home, however, I have to say that I did, in fact, do some field work, and learn something about the Internet. I learned about the meaning of ubiquitous access, which is a popular phrase in Internet policy circles. My family’s vacation experience illustrates that ubiquitous access is far too ambitious a goal for policies in low density areas. There is just no reason to have Internet access in every location and all the time if partial access accomplishes enough.
That might sound a bit abstract, so let me say it more concretely. This year my family and I spent time in two locations, Arnold, CA, and Tahoe City, CA. Both are in the Sierra Mountains. (And, no, the town of Arnold was not renamed for the present governor…)
At our main residence in both locations my wife and I could not get mobile phone service (hence, no mobile email), but we found good DSL broadband access (and I brought along a laptop). Phone service also was spotty when we visited underground caves, walked next to tall trees, rode horses through a vineyard, toured cheesy ghost towns, braved white water on a raft, hiked at high elevations and high winds, and listened to the breeze echo off the glacial canyons. In short, we visited many places off the grid, but not all these places were off the grid.
You know what? We did not need constant connectivity. Sure, constant connectivity would have been convenient, but partial connectivity was sufficient for a satisfying experience. In other words, there would have been a gain from having ubiquitous access, but not much.
Let me illustrate.
On or off the grid?
Vacations in the western US are field work for me. I cannot help it. During this vacation I kept thinking back to the basic theory of data communications. I learned that I had not fully understood it.
I appreciated the basic theory of communications behind packet-switched networks in the following incomplete way:
Once upon time, in the era of voice telephony, phone calls could suffer greatly from delay. But in the early 1960s a radical idea was proposed. Some types of written messages could tolerate a little delay, as messages involving data did. In such cases, the infrastructure to support communications could differ from that to support voice communications. That difference brought with it all sorts of potential gains in the design of the network.
The above is incomplete in a subtle way that I will illustrate in a minute. It puts too much emphasis on the gains from a partially deployed network in a world where voice telephony dominates. It is incomplete because it does not fully anticipate what life would be like with a nearly ubiquitous data network in which voice telephony no longer dominates. In other words, it applies to, say, 1995, not 2010.
Think of it this way. Every network faces a question: how widely should it be deployed? To answer that question it is important to know the gains from additional coverage, namely, from providing more access in more locations. When the data network first started to deploy (in the face of a dominant voice network) the gains from additional deployment were huge. That was obvious to most experts at the time and it is especially obvious with the benefit of hindsight.
Ah, but that leaves open a question: When the network is widely deployed and widely used (and the voice network is less dominant), as we have today in most of the US, what are the benefits from deploying more Internet access?
I learned the answer to that second question. There is no compelling reason to be constantly connected. Occasional interaction with the information grid is sufficient for most purposes. Thus, the benefits from deploying more are comparatively small. That is interesting because the last bit of deployment costs a great deal. Stepping back from constant deployment saves enormous expense for society. Or to put it another way, the cost of “connectivity a couple times a day” is far lower than the cost of “constant connectivity.”
I could say this concretely. We intensively used the grid on several occasions. Occasional intensive interaction with the functioning grid was sufficient. We did not need to look up things online at every moment, and we did not need to communicate by e-mail at every moment, and, related, we could survive with only partial connectivity – even though the substitutes (telephone) were not effective.
Below I will describe experiences that illustrate how we managed. First, we could time-shift virtually all of our use of the data network. Second, we could get access by landline in some locations, by wireless network in others, and almost always get such access more than a few times a day. Third, we could plan ahead, using connectivity when we had it to anticipate the issues we needed to manage. That was sufficient.
Illustrations: horses and caves
The first illustration came during our horseback riding. We had always planned to go horseback riding, but had planned to put it off until we got into Lake Tahoe. But Arnold is near a grove of big Redwood Trees. That got us out of the house. After visiting the trees for a day we went out for an ice cream and I happened upon some literature about other local activities.
I saw an ad for horseback riding, and I noticed that it was close. It was possible to look up the company on the mobile browser, and that experience suggested they were very close. But the mobile browser is just too darned slow for general searches, so I delayed finishing the search until we got back to the house.
At the house I had the opportunity to do a more general search on a DSL broadband connection. It turned out there were several options for horseback riding, but – whatdoyouknow? – the company who advertised turned out to be closer than any other.
I proposed a ride to my wife, kids, brother and nephew, who thought it worthwhile to investigate the possibility. I phoned up the horse back riding company, and they had an opening the next day during an afternoon slot because a large party had not confirmed their reservation. We made a reservation. The next afternoon went riding through a grape vineyard. It was very nice.
That is a pretty tame illustration, but it leads to the second illustration. We talked with the organizer of the ride and he gave us advise on where to go. How did we get such advise from him? Well, I am not sure. It grew out of a conversation. We learned that he had been offering this service for a few years. He had grown up nearby and fallen into this line of work after trying a number of other things (e.g., fighting forest fires, teaching English in junior high, etc.). I guess the conversation just kept progressing…
So I guess we asked for it. After all, local knowledge is valuable, so we solicited for his advice. We told him what we intended to do the next day (go to the “Moaning Cave”). He recommended one additional place to go that was close to the cave, a place where the locals go, called the natural bridge. He warned us that it took about a mile hike to reach, and the turnoff from the road was easy to miss. It was not a tourist destination, but it was a nice relaxing place to have a hike, and it would be interesting if we liked caves and stalactites.
That night my niece and sister in law joined us in the house, and so did her sister and three kids. We looked up the Moaning Cave, and it looked like it would work for the group. Then, using online sources, we looked up the natural bridge. One entry even said that tourists tended not to go there, but described the same things as our horseback guide.
Most importantly, an entry included one key line. It said the hike contained lots of poison oak. That warning was extremely valuable. Brushing exposed skin against poison oak, even by accident, can lead to an itchy experience. Knowing we would be facing that threat, we packed pants and closed shoes.
Let me put this in perspective. The visit to the natural bridge went well, and that little piece of information about poison oak made sure it went well. That turned out to really matter because of what came before it.
The next day we did, in fact, visit the Moaning cave (which was as good as advertised). After that we drove to Columbia, a former mining town that has turned itself into a tourist destination. Columbia, however, was a disappointing destination. Let me digress for a minute about why it disappointed us.
Here was the problem. A town cannot claim to be a “historic mining town” unless it, um, looks historic, which basically means it has to look like it is close to dead and rotting, which this did not, or it has to be so fanciful that it is fun. In short, ghost towns either have to become real cheesy (e.g., Virginia City, NV) or mildly creepy and spooky (e.g., Bodie, CA). Columbia has not decided which it wants to be.
Why not cheesy? Columbia contained a few old buildings and some old mining equipment and some old vehicles (mostly fire trucks), and all that was ok for the kids to look at. Yet, much of it was NOT thoughtfully displayed — not enough signage and explanation to make those real interesting. Cheesy places also have good food (pun not intended), but the food we ate also was pretty mediocre. (It is a universal constant: Nothing makes kids more surly than mediocre pizza.)
Yet, Columbia also was not spooky. The town is not dead yet, or even close to dead. It contained a few new buildings and some reasonably vibrant spaces. (Look, that is probably great for the residences, but there are hundreds of little towns all over the west, and I do not need to spend an afternoon with my kids in them.)
Get the point? The town is neither cheesy nor creepy, so we did not have a great time visiting.
I digressed about Columbia because it explains why we sought out the Natural Bridge. If we had had a good time in Columbia I bet we would have called it a day and gone home. But after our experience there everybody was in the mood to try something adventurist, even a recommendation from a horseback ride guide who we had met once. So we made the effort, found the entrance to the hike to the natural bridge, parked, and went on the hike.
As warned, there was a lot of poison oak. And when I say a lot I do mean everywhere, in every step, at every corner, along every path way. I grew up in the west, and near trails covered with this stuff, but even I had not seen a path like this. This was enough to keep a whole army scratching for weeks. Pants and closed shoes were a necessity, not a luxury.
More to the point, I was extremely grateful for the additional information in advance. Poison oak can ruin an entire vacation. I am grateful nobody contracted it.
And we had a great time. The water was ice-cold, but the scenery awed us. The kids splashed about, and walked into the cave, looked at the stalactites. Then we hiked down the stream a bit to the place where the canyon grows narrow and a water fall begins (it must be large during the spring). It was casual and creepy. The place fit us perfectly.
In sum, in two days we had used information technology intensively to get informed, and partial access to broadband Internet had been sufficient to (a) find a local service we had not known about, such as horse back riding; and (b) inform us in advance about how to prepare for an experience, such as poison oak along a trail.
I do not want to exaggerate. Information technology did solve all our problems. It had not warned us that Columbia would be disappointing. Well, I guess some things must be learned by experience.
I have one more illustration of how partial access to information technology helped. That illustration comes from our experience with white water rafting. It sheds light on one other way in which partial access provides sufficient coverage. It helps move events to different days.
One more illustration – rafting and Virginia City
The second part of our trip involved an extended stay in Lake Tahoe. Because we had been to Lake Tahoe so many times we had a good feel on many of the potential activities. Yet, information technology made the experience much better. We initially looked up the ten day forecast for the weather. It is hard to recall, but finding a ten day forecast used to be hard to do. Now it is easy, and it makes an enormous difference in a vacation spot like Tahoe, where the weather can change and does so occasionally.
Specifically, most of the time Lake Tahoe weather in August is about as close to ideal as I can imagine, but it will occasionally depart from the ideal with a bit of rain. It is no fun to be stuck on a long hike on such a day, and since these type of days are rare, it pays to check the weather in advance. Bad weather never lasts long in Tahoe in August, so Hikes can be moved to other days when the weather is bound to be better.
As it turned out, the forecast predicted something I had never seen in many years in visiting Tahoe, namely, a very cold day at the end of August. To be sure, any weather can happen in the Sierras at any time (so say the historical records), but this was unusual. The forecast for the last night of our last stay called for mild rain and near freezing temperatures at night at our elevation (6000 feet), which meant snow at higher elevations.
We planned accordingly. Most importantly, we moved our rafting trip earlier than later. That is because river rafting is no fun for amateurs in anything other than hot weather. By moving the trip to a hot day I wanted to improve the chances that my kids had a good time.
Information technology helped with one other aspect of this river raft trip. I started doing my homework in Arnold because I wanted a trip that fit my family. We had been down several different rivers on prior vacations, and so I was looking to do more than merely float down a stream. However, safety is a concern with young children, and I do did not want to put my family on a river that was running dangerously high or uncontrollably fast.
Most online ads merely described the average conditions of the river. Most of the time these are accurate because upstream dams determine how much water each river receives each day, and, for the most part, these allocations are the same one day next to the other.
But an online site will not say much about recent conditions. It is essential to have a conversation with someone who has navigated the river recently.
To make a long story short, a broadband connection was very valuable for this investigation. I narrowed the search down to two rivers and two companies. I ended up in two email conversations with two different companies.
Most interesting, these emails back and forth took several days, some by broadband and some by email with a mobile phone. This was a perfect illustration of the situation where email communication was superior to phone service. Each participant had a question for the other, which necessitated investigating various details in side conversations (e.g., the river company HQ with the guides, and me with my wife and kids). There was no way to settle the matter in one phone call. Side conversations were anticipated. It was inherent to the decision making process.
Specifically, one river company was not keen on taking my children on the South Fork of the American. The youngest kids needed to be a year or two older. Frankly, I was happy to get a certain answer. I would have hated to drive out there and had them keep the kids off a raft.
The answer was different on the other river, the Truckee, because the river was milder. The other company was willing to talk about a trip on one part of the Truckee River. However, the guides wanted to meet everyone first and size up the situation, because they were worried about the size, weight, and strength of my kids and the adults, which was a reasonable set of questions. We made a reservation, and my wife and I made plans in case the company did not want to have us all on the boat.
We showed up, talked to the main guide. As it turned out, the guide took one look at us and he realized that everything would be fine (which is what I suspected would happen if the river was as mild as described online). There were enough strong paddlers to handle the main paddling duties (me, my father, my wife and my oldest son). In addition, the guide could take some extra precautions – putting the young children in the middle of the raft, which eliminated the biggest danger. They were old enough to follow those directions.
All in all, we had a great trip down the river. This was perfect for the family. It was more than a mere float, and involved a few rapids, but it was short enough for the young kids. It also did not involve too much adventure for the youngest among them. We also saw a bit of wildlife, including a brown eagle and an osprey.
As an aside, I would recommend this trip to a near novice, who wants a white water river raft experience near the “safe” side of things. It is also good for someone who has experience, but, as I did, wants to gently introduce the family to something more than a few bumps in a stream.
More to the point, we did this in hot weather. My kids got wet in the icy water, but had a great time anyway because they dried off so quickly. During a colder day (e.g., 65 degrees or colder) this activity would have been much less enjoyable.
As it was, because we knew about the weather in advance, we reserved the coldest day for our visit to Virginia City (unofficial cheesy slogan: Mark Twain started his career here). In fact, it was a relatively cold day for the Nevada desert, and that was just fine. Cheesy ghost towns do not get any worse in cold weather. Old mines do not look any less functional without the sun. Tasty onion rings and french fries still appeal to the kids as much on a cloudy day as on any other day.
On my summer vacation I learned something about the meaning of ubiquitous Internet access. In spite of partial access, we managed just fine because we time-shifted our online activity. Those experiences illustrate why access does not have to cover every location for a user to achieve reasonable outcomes.
I do not expect anyone to ever give me a grant to do this type of field work. This is the type of research I would happily do on my own nickel.