On December 21st, Toronto got one of the worst ice storms it has had in a long time. At its worst, about 300,000 people were without power, streetcar service was cancelled and life changed a bit for a lot of people as they started to go without heat, hot water, refrigeration, and in many cases even a stove to cook on. We were very lucky in that we had power the whole time.
This was a typical blackout in most ways but we noticed one big difference. Even those without power still had the Internet through their phones. On the one hand this was very good. People could get in touch with power companies to see when power was coming back. My Facebook feed was filled with messages from people who did have power offering anyone who could see their posts a warm place to sleep, a place to take a shower or to have dinner. It was a real example of the power of near-ubiquitous connectivity.
But with all that good came a memory from 15 years prior. We were still living in the yurt, placed on land that the family of a friend owned a house on. We had no electricity where we lived, but they did. We saw the family in the evening after a large thunderstorm had passed through. Apparently they had lost power. One of the teenagers living there was asked how they spent the time during the blackout. “There was nothing to do so I just slept.” That day, just like the day of the blackout, I found myself thinking about how things seem to have changed. And now, even a blackout doesn’t necessarily encourage us to read, go for a walk, chat with neighbours, or play games. We just retreat to (or remain on) the Internet.
Now the irony of my raising an eyebrow at how people were spending their blackout time was not lost on me. After all, I only knew what they were up to because I, also, was on the Internet. I just had even more options for things to do: lights to read by, a warm house to do it in, a stove that worked to cook delicious food on, music to listen to. Even my computer was capable of all sorts of things that were not seeing who had power, or what the latest hilarious video was posted by my friends was.
And so Sage and I decided to try something I’d been considering for a while. I made up a game that would determine just how much entertainment technology we would use on a given day based on a relative year in history. That night and every night for the next 5 nights we would roll a six sided die. The resulting roll would determine our level of entertainment technology we would use that day. Specifically the rules were:
- Today’s technology level
- 2002 Tech: Internet but no mobile, tablets, etc. Streaming music an option from the computer, and though not fully historically accurate, there were no limits on what sites we could go to
- 1986: Computer, but no internet (at least for the masses), CD, cassettes, records, radio, TV, movies
- 1975: TV (via Youtube – but only 1975 or before and no other computer use)Records/radio only (I didn’t get a cassette player until the 80s even though they existed)
- 1945: Effectively no broadcast TV, movies radio and records only
- 1850 – no electrically powered entertainment (lights, cooking, etc OK).
We rolled the die and away we went back to…
One of the reasons we did the roll the night before was to give ourselves the opportunity to prepare for unplugging. I use a lot of technology including for my recipes. There is no old box filled with food-stained 3″x5″ cards in my kitchen. Every recipe we make regularly is lovingly tagged and stored in Evernote for future use. Take away my technology and our dinners go from being delicious Thai curries to hamburgers, mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. Which, come to think of it, was close to what I ate in 1975.
I was surprised at how easy it was to go without the computer that day. While in the kitchen we either listened to records or read to one another as we would normally do anyway. Much of the day was spent reading books or playing cards in the bedroom listening to the radio on a boombox we dug from under the bed that, true confession, was probably made sometime around 1988).
But it wasn’t all easy. My usual day-off routine was pretty much gone. While in 2013 I start the day with a “let’s see what’s up in the world” scan of my Facebook feed, local newspaper sites, and checking weather online. But this was 1975, and none of that was available. Unfortunately unlike my real 1975 counterpart, I didn’t have a newspaper waiting for me downstairs. And so I went off to the kitchen with my book and made some coffee.
There were two, related differences between my day to day 2013 experiences and 1975:
The first is that the day seemed to last forever. There was no worry about not having enough time to do everything I wanted to. I’d go do something like make breakfast, have a shower, and then go play Sage’s & my current favourite card game, Ghooost. Then I’d go look at the clock and see that it was not lunchtime as I suspected, an hour had passed instead. It was astonishing how much more time I gained from not “just checking email for a minute” between tasks.
Another big difference between living with today’s technology and 1975′s is what happened when I was between tasks, a little bored or my attention wandered. I noticed that that was when the “Hey, let’s check and see if there’s something interesting happening online” impulse came.
The two of these impulses together made me realize something about how I use the Internet. It’s my “fast forward” button for life. Just as I used to fast forward through the commercials when I would watch a show I taped, I use the Internet to fast forward through parts of life I think aren’t worthy of my attention. At its worst, to continue the television analogy, I use the Internet to channel surf my life even when I’m out and about. If I’m bored on the streetcar, just dive in to the phone for a quick fast forward. Every few minutes, I will poke my head up to see if, in the 5 seconds I look around, there is anything interesting enough to watch. If there is nothing interesting, hit the fast forward again. Do that enough, and the day will just fly by.
We ended the night with a little television that fit within the rules we’d laid out for ourselves.
But before we did that we rolled the dice and were brought back to…
There wasn’t a whole lot of difference between 2003 and 2013 except for a couple of noticeable things. Cell phones and texting existed, as did portable music players. So when I woke up that morning all I needed to do was turn off the data on my phone. I did a bit of traveling in the city that day and noticed that I missed a couple of things. I missed “fast forwarding” through my streetcar rides, but more than that I really missed accessing Nextbus to tell me when transit vehicles are due through the magic of GPS-tracking. I rarely use it to make any actual decisions as to which bus to take. I’m laughing as I write this now because it occurs to me just why I use it. Maybe 5% of the reason I use it is to make sure there isn’t some major delay, but 95% of the reason is that I use it to determine just how impatient I should feel. I know where the bus stops are and nearly everywhere I go has service every 5 min or less, rarely more than 10. So while I still felt the impulse to check to see when the streetcar was coming, in reality I didn’t really miss it at all. I was, however, glad for the ability to connect with people I know online. We rolled the dice again and that brought me to…
Back to the present again. Surprisingly, while I was glad to have the technology back, it wasn’t as exciting as I might have expected. All in all, a relatively bland day. Time to roll again…
Back in 1975 again. There was a sort of comfort in coming back to this. I’d done this year before and had a great time playing games and reading books in a day that seemed to last almost forever. Who wouldn’t want to do that again? Still, this time around as I traveled downtown to a spin class, I noticed something else. 1975 people hardly carry any valuables. In 2013 on a trip to work I am likely to bring an iPhone, an iPad for note taking and “transit entertainment” (games, internet, and reading), as well as my work laptop. Combined the value of what I’m carrying approaches the cost of my last (admittedly relatively inexpensive) used car. What is the value of what I carry when playing 1975? Other than cash, the most valuable thing I have is a transit pass. It definitely made me think a bit about what we consider necessary purchases these days and then the maintenance costs of those (cell phone plans, data plans, and so forth) that simply didn’t exist forty years ago. But even a long day must end and it ended with a roll that sent us back to…
I kind of feel like there needs to be an HTML tag for the dramatic “BUM BUM BUUUUUUUUUUUUM” because that’s what it felt like. While the other years seemed easy enough, living without any music seemed challenging. And it was. It wasn’t until I started thinking about it that I realized: for most of my life I’ve loved music. There is always music playing wherever I go. In my 2013 life, I have music on when I am on the computer (like right now, for instance), when I cook, when I shower, and when I am relaxing with friends. It’s omnipresent and so the silence was really noticeable at first. But then something shifted. I started to fill in the silence. It started with humming songs I knew, or singing fragments of them. My day began to be filled with ridiculous narrative songs reminiscent of the “Operas” that Mr. Rogers would do.
When my 15 year old son, Daegan, woke up he joined in the fun, joining in with my earworms, adding his own, sometimes accompanied by harmonica. Despite that seemingly joyful environment, the lack of music made me feel a little down and so we needed a change of scenery. Fortunately there were museums in 1850 and so we headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario part of which, the Grange, was, in fact, around as long ago as 1817. It was a good time though I noticed myself being especially susceptible to “Second Hand Earworms”. At one point we stood outside a street food vendor in Chinatown waiting for our food to be made while two doors down a dollar store Santa played “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. I’m far from a fan of Christmas music but still the song stuck in my head for hours, even resulting in involuntary humming on my part that inspired involuntary singing on the part of another streetcar rider on the way home. It was clear, I was a bit dependent on music, catching myself more than once enjoying what little music leaked out of loud car stereos.
I admit it. Funnily enough, that day was my breaking point. I haven’t rolled the dice again since.
But going back to my TV metaphor from a few paragraphs back. Like the end of many TV movies we see the credits roll on this little story, but not without a few breaks in between for the “Where are they now” portions of the credits.
But I’ll be a bit more careful from now on where I stand while waiting for my lamb skewers to cook in the 1800s.
Dice Photo by @Doug88888 used under Creative Commons License
Timer Photo by Lynda Giddens used under Creative Commons License
Radio Photo by Tuija Aalto used under Creative Commons License
Fast Forward Photo by LEOL30 used under Creative Commons License
Second Dice Photo by Steve Johnson used under Creative Commons License