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Different ways of being 'online'

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 25, 2007
(Issue 2521, Compute on Your Lap)

When folks first started venturing onto dial-up bulletin board systems, or BBSs, in the early 1980s, there was a clear distinction between "online" and "offline."

With a new cell-phone capable of getting my e-mail, downloading and playing MP3s, browsing the Web and sending and receiving text messages; with the latest generation of video game consoles offering online multiplayer competition; with home broadband Internet connectivity becoming as common as cable or satellite TV access; and with wireless access becoming an expected amenity at coffee shops everywhere – well, being "online" is becoming the normal state of the human condition.

I thought about this while at jury duty in the Vista court house this morning. Sitting in the jury lounge, I saw dozens of folks typing away on their laptops – and just assumed they had a wireless hookup everyone was using.

Until the supervisor came out and explained that they had four – count 'em, 4 – dial-up connections available. And only one juror took advantage.

Which I assumed was because she was the only one whose laptop computer had both a standard telephone jack and a dial-up account she could access.

The rest apparently were working on files off their hard drives – waiting to upload them until later.

Which must have been unnervingly odd for a lot of my fellow jurors.

Whether at work or at home, I'd guess that a majority of us have Internet connectivity pretty much all the time. We can check our e-mail at will – and probably use it as our main form of communication with family, friends and co-workers. We can get the latest news, not from the radio, but from news sites on the Web. Want to hear the latest hit song? No need to drive to the store – just buy it, download it, and listen immediately.

The social aspect

But being online is much more about human psychology than it is about the technology of connecting multiple computers or other digital data devices.

I didn't see a graceful way of interviewing my fellow jurors this morning, but I'll bet at least some of them felt a little lost being disconnected from the larger cyberworld.

It's not that everything we do with our computers is necessarily an online operation – writing this column needs only a word processor and hard drive to store the file; I could have just as easily written it on my old Atari Falcon and transferred it to the PC on floppy.

The point is that I know I can quickly switch to an e-mail client, a Web browser, an instant message client and be "online" in a heartbeat.

Being offline – as I was while in Ireland last year – was a bit disorienting. It was like I was cut off from the outside world, a Borg cut off from the Collective for you Trekkies.

We are becoming increasingly used to being connected to a larger community via the Internet, and I don't think it exaggeration to suggest that in the decades to come, that sense of being connected will change the way human beings interact with one another (we already see that happening) and even how we view the world, each other and life itself.

It can't help but do so. Linguists and ethnopoetics experts like UCSD's own Jerome Rothenberg have shown that the language you are raised speaking shapes how you see reality. The words and phrases you have available to describe your experiences, to even dream in, these shape our we perceive our existence.

Being connected, either via the Internet, a cell phone or a gaming console, is part of our language, part of our experience of life.

From massively multiplayer online gaming to smaller-scale multiplayer online gaming (increasingly available through gaming consoles and even handheld gaming systems like Nintendo's DS or the Sony PSP), from instant messaging on the PC to text messaging on our cell phones, and even interactive menuing systems on our cable and satellite TV services, we are used to being connected to an outside network.

Sitting alone at a computer working on an application confined to just that computer?

For twenty-five years, that was the experience of personal computing.

Now, it's almost weird – like something you'd only find happening in a jury lounge.