Column: The Internet in your pocket
I used to carry an analog Motorola cell phone the size of a brick. I lugged it around for six years, carrying it back and forth between downtown Minneapolis and Farmington, carefully shielding it in a waterproof pouch on rainy days. Although I know I look really cool when I'm sporting a cell phone clipped to my belt, I didn't drag this electronic behemoth around just for fashion. As an IT professional I was on call for work. I've spent six years of my life on call, around half my career so far. For an IT person, that isn't all that bad. I've mostly worked as a computer programmer writing business applications, and there aren't many business applications that get used in the middle of the night.
I loved my rudimentary cell phone with its 20 minute, $10 a month plan, since I was on call but rarely called. Despite my obvious attachment to my phone, my technophile coworkers openly mocked it. They made fun of its huge size, unstylish looks and somewhat useless antenna. Once I walked into my cubicle to find a yellow Post-It stuck to the phone. I usually left the phone charging in its cradle because its battery only lasted about 30 minutes. My team lead noticed this and decided to bully my poor defenseless phone while I was in a meeting. Written in blue ink on the Post-It were the words "Austin Powers' Phone." I knew the cell phone was old, but I never thought it looked so old that it appeared to have magically time-traveled to my desk from the 1960s. As I peeled the Post-It off the phone I could hear my coworkers chortling. My cell phone self-esteem hit a new low.
Despite the Austin Powers incident, I hung onto the phone for a few more years. Then I married a cell phone junkie, and my cellular lifestyle was suddenly upwardly mobile. Now I've gone through four fancy phones in three years. All of these phones have been packed with features. They can play games, take pictures, and chime whenever I have a meeting to remind me to interrupt my actual work to go talk about doing work. The most important feature of all is that they have a connection to the Internet. This has changed my life in subtle ways I never expected. I met a friend for lunch today at a restaurant I've never been to, but I didn't write down directions. Instead I looked up the restaurant's web site on my phone. Directions are obsolete. Even Post-Its are obsolete, as I have a virtual unlimited pack of them in the phone clipped to my belt. I'll never need a pocket protector again, since I don't need to carry a potentially drippy pen around with me.
The strangest thing I've noticed now that I and all of my friends and coworkers are carrying around a constant connection to the Internet is that our pace of conversations has changed. If someone makes a comment like, "I wonder if the new season of The Office started yet," at least one person whips a Blackberry out of a belt holster. In two seconds we have confirmation on whether we've missed new episodes, the time and date of the next episode and a report on which of the fictional office workers are quitting their jobs this season. No question ever goes unanswered. I can brag about the downtown Farmington Farmer's market in one breath, and in the next, look up the market hours so I can pester my friends to join me there.
We wield an incredible power, access to an unbelievable amount of information and we use it in the most banal ways. I was arguing with a coworker at lunch about whether peanuts are really a nut. They're a legume, but he didn't believe me. A quick glance at legumes.org confirmed the truth. So then we moved onto arguing about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.
Access to an unlimited buffet of information is quickly changing the nature of discussion and debate. Arguments about nuts and fruits can be solved in seconds. Directions to the restaurant are only a click away. The information is there. The question no longer is what we can learn, but how much we can learn. Instead of Austin Powers' cell phone, I now have an incredible futuristic device worthy of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite my nostalgia for my old phone, I'm getting used to having the power of the Internet in pocket. Well, sometimes the power of the Internet is actually clipped to my belt. That's one old-style IT fashion statement I won't give up.