The grid has a grip on the rhythms of my family. This is not news, really, but it took a new setting, a vacation, to make apparent what should have been obvious.
This August my wife and I went west for a vacation out west, in this case, to Lake Tahoe. It was a good vacation, but not an escape from the familiar. As with prior vacations, this one became a catalyst for reflecting on the role of information technology in our lives.
Perhaps resistance was futile, but mine was pathetic. I submitted my family to the grip of the grid almost from the outset, when I purposely rented a house with a broadband Internet connection. It even had a wireless modem.
This post will talk about how the grid took over our vacation. Ultimately, the grip of the grid never loosened completely. In retrospect, this was not all bad.
It starts with email
My automated email message only gave a generic message about traveling. It did not mention the vacation. It read:
Thank you for your email. I am traveling right now and I will be off the grid from time to time. I will respond to your email at the earliest possible moment. Thank you for your understanding.
During the vacation an email came from a reporter. He gave me many days to read a document and respond before his deadline. That was polite on his part, and consistent with the way we had done business in the past. Normally I would have cooperated. Yet, I did not want to do that in this case, because – well, what can I say? — I was on vacation and reading that document took too much effort.
Wait. That is not precise. Here is what I mean. Reading the document took more than five minutes, and it required concentration.
Look, receiving email on vacation is not the same as receiving it on a business trip. Sitting in a hotel room, with a baseball game in the background on TV, I am perfectly willing to take a half hour out of an evening and think through a reporter’s deep question. That is what happens during business trips. In contrast, sitting in a rental house, my children watching Sponge Bob on TV, I have no more than five or ten minutes to concentrate on a question before one of the kids requires my attention.
Anyway, my point is this: I should have had a better email message. Vacations do not resemble other types of trips.
The grid casts a shadow
The grip cast its shadow in many ways, even at the outset, and in some of the oddest places. For example, it came up as we drove to our rental house. We passed Syd’s Bagelry and Expresso in Tahoe City.
I pointed out the café to my wife with almost a wistful fondness. When we had visited Tahoe four years ago I had gone there regularly for breakfast before everyone awoke (I tend to be an early riser). It offers free Wi-Fi and I can still remember sitting there with my bagel and coffee, checking my email on the lap top. There is something deeply satisfying about reading amongst the cacophonous white noise of a café. I have enjoyed that ever since I started doing my college homework in cafés. I do not get much of that anymore.
More to the point, the serenity usually only lasted a short time most mornings. The grip of the grid cast its shadow very soon after the kids awoke each morning.
Here is what I mean: My wife would check her email on her Blackberry, and just as she does at home, occasionally she would get completely absorbed in something. My oldest son recreated his home pattern too. He would put on ear phones, completely shutting out the noise all around.
To be sure, it is not as if IT was necessary for this type of withdrawal. On occasion my daughters would withdraw the old fashioned way, by opening books, and settling into their couches – that is, when they were not joining our youngest son in his enjoyment of Sponge Bob and Phineas and Ferb. But that felt different. TV watching, book reading, and newspaper reading are only a partial withdrawal. These activities can be interrupted with one name calling, not with multiple shouts and a tap on the shoulder, as earphones require.
Here is what I am trying to say. At several points I regretted renting a house with broadband Internet and Wi-Fi, especially as I watched my wife, my son, and I engage in the IT equivalent of parallel-play. Parallel play is the type of social engagement observed in pre-school sandboxes, with each child following his or her own beat, occasionally sharing/interacting with others.
The first time I noticed parallel play on this family vacations I got a bit mad. Family vacations are not supposed to involve parallel play, I thought initially. Vacations were supposed to allow us to interact in new ways and get to know each other in new ways.
Eventually I changed my mind.
But was it worth it?
Here is one reason why I changed my mind. As we undertook many new adventures I began to perceive a new value to the IT parallel play. It served a useful purpose. It established a comfort zone for each of us.
This is what I mean: on vacation we were thrown together with more intimacy and adventure than normal. It also took place in a new setting, in places with many new stimuli. In response, we each sought something familiar in our IT.
I had never before thought of web surfing as the psychological equivalent of Linus’ security blanket, but there it was, a familiar experience in a sea of new adventure. For my son it was YouTube. For me it was email. For my wife the Blackberry. We were not that different than my son watching SpongeBob.
I change my mind for another reason. The grid showed its real worth near the end of the trip, when my wife and I went searching with open-ended goals. For example, we faced one such event when our plans for a hike had to be rearranged to accommodate a few matters that shortened a day.
We were left with an open ended question: what activity could a group of kids and adults do not far from Tahoe City and return home by 3:30? After a bit of search we settled on a visit to the Sugar Pine Point State Park, which had an easy hiking trail along the lake, and a first rate (and quirky!) tourist attraction, the Ehrman Mansion. None of us had ever been there, despite multiple visits to the region. We looked it up online and thought “why not?” This turned out to be a success.
Ehrman Mansion, as it turns out, was built by Isaiah Hellman, the first president of Wells Fargo Bank. His daughter, Florence Hellman Ehrman, ran the mansion for decades thereafter, donating it to the state of California in the 1960s. Eventually the house was rehabbed and turned into a tourist attraction. And what an attraction! Built in 1903 on the West side of Lake Tahoe, when it was completely cut-off from civilization — automobile roads and the electrical grid did not reach it until the mid 1920s — it had to be self-sufficient, generating its own water, waste, electricity, etc. It also had to be sufficiently well run so it could entertain some of West Coast’s leading industrialists.
Unassuming from the outside, the mansion deserved an explanation, and entertained with its surprises. It was funded by one of the wealthiest people in the world at the time, Isaiah Hellman. For its time it was the equivalent to Bill Gate’s fifty million dollar house today.
A couple days afterwards my brother-in-law, Phil, sent an interesting link by email. The Wikipedia entry on Isaiah Hellman rounded out the tour. What a fascinating business figure he was. His accomplishments are largely lost to popular memory, despite how impressive they were for the time.
At last, the grid had delivered, enhancing our adventure.
A similar observation– about the value of the grid for an open ended question – arose later in a very different guise. Near the end of the trip we had a day free, and we had no obligations to be with anyone else. My wife and I had to decide whether to take an adventurist hike or just go to the beach.
I had noticed during the trip that the children had become more capable at hiking, so it was possible to attempt something a little more ambitious than what we had done in the past. I went online and looked up a short hike to Lake Tamarack, in the Desolation Wilderness, just north of the Echo Lakes. Using the Internet I brought up the topographical maps of the area and looked at the distance. It seemed feasible, and explained it to my wife. She agreed, so we took a chance, drove out there with all the preparations to hike, and asked a local person if this was too much. He gave us the go-ahead, so off we went as a family.
We then had one of the most challenging and glorious hikes my wife and I have ever had with our children. Near the end of the hike, we climbed one last hill, a moraine left by glaciers thousands of years ago, and at the top got a breathtaking view of the Echo Lakes.
There is no better way to teach children the value of climbing one last hill than actually showing them what it yields.
After our hike into Desolation Wilderness my wife and I decided to, um, cheat on our way home. Instead of hiking the three miles back to our car, we paid for a ride on a boat taxi on Echo Lakes (these “taxis” seat about 12 passengers in simple boat). And that is when I learned my last lesson: the grip of the grid had been loosened, but not fully.
In the boat we passed many of the homes on the lake. Most of these had been built in the last few decades, and all of them are otherwise cut off from the grid, accessible only in the summer when the snow allows boats to reach them. All of them were smaller than the Erhman Mansion, but they all had similar traits. If they have electricity it is from generators on site. If they had heat, it was from fireplaces. If they had food, it is because the residents brought it in. If the residents have a car, it was left somewhere far away, since boats offered the only way in.
We talked about this lifestyle in the boat, and asked the boat taxi driver about it. The kids asked about cell phones (no service) and Internet (not a chance except by satellite, but where does the electricity come from?). That sunk in. After a pause the conversation turned to groceries (brought by boat, so it is not too sensible to make daily trips to the grocery store to get some milk). After another longer pause there was a revelation about garbage. It all went out by boat too.
A question arose from one of the kids and then lingered in the air: why would anyone willingly take a vacation in such an isolated location? It was beautiful, to be sure, but lacked all the conveniences of modern life. In response I noted somewhat dryly that some people just want to get away from it all. After all, I said, this was what vacations used to be, and for many people it is still the ideal. My wife nodded in agreement.
The kids stayed silent. That was a sign that they did not fully get it.