I felt the earth move under my feet. Well, really, it was the car that moved, the rail car. I’m blogging from Amtrak’s Cascades train heading from Seattle to Portland. It is a trip mixing old tech and new tech, luxuries lost and luxuries expected. And, it’s cheap! And distracting.
Writing is enough of a chore for many that they avoid it unless necessary. As much as we may bemoan social media, I think many unconsciously appreciate it because they can communicate in short bursts with less concern for rules. If you make a mistake, it’s all right. Your friends will understand. Today’s writing exercise is to type up this post while listening to the crowd in coach class: an occasionally boisterous family, a grandmother talking baby talk to her kindergarden grandchild, the requisite conductor’s announcements. Then there are the other distractions: Mt. Rainier, every garden that sweeps past, the train crossings marked by a whistle. Pardon me as I pause to plug in some instrumentals via my earbuds. (Ah, Beethoven.)
Almost every human endeavour has been affected by technology. That’s true of every age. Technology like clothing and knives helped us expand across the continents. The story tellers of those ages probably complained about their working conditions too, even while advancements made communication easier.
Waiting to board the train I read some Mark Twain, “What Is Man?”. He wrote as he traveled, probably pen or pencil on paper, maybe with a typewriter. Thanks to technology I just checked and found that he was the first to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher. He was an early adopter. I look for free wi-fi. Did he have to look for ribbons?
This is my first business trip in over a decade. As Project Manager for the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum project, I am attending the Museums on the Web conference in Portland, OR – an opportunity to meet and great and learn from those museum officials who’ve pioneered virtual exhibits and artifact databases. Soon, we’ll be giving the presentations, after we’ve succeeded. A virtual museum is a mix of old and new. Originally repositories were probably exclusive, collections curated by nobility or clergy. Museums continue to rely on well-established patrons and organizations, but their primary role is saving history for the public. That role was met by large colonnaded buildings, but has progressively incorporated electronics to add content to displays or to lead visitors through the exhibits. Now, many museums are putting content online, partly as a teaser, partly as a service. Most museums have more artifacts than display space, and online exhibits give them the opportunity to show more of what they’ve got. HCLE is taking it one step further. Because learning and education are based more on software than hardware, and because research exists as documents, we’ll be able to eliminate the need for a building, except for offices and a space for the computers. We may even dispose of the more common artifacts.
There are gains and losses with any change. The cost of setting up and running HCLE will be smaller than most museums, while the value will remain high. But, people won’t be able to visit. Some people prefer to read old documents in the original form. I collect first editions. I know. There’s an appreciation of process and its constraints. Mark Twain probably wrote differently with pen than with his typewriter. Imagine, Wite-Out hadn’t been invented, yet. Cut and paste involved scissors and glue. Were his original manuscripts scraps of paper, gingerly held together, or did he re-type entire books? The changes experienced at the beginning of the Information Age involved mimeographs, mailgrams, xeroxes, and faxes. Yet, the technology became less important than the content. Now, content is so important that few consider if it was produced on a desktop, a laptop, or a cloud computer. HCLE can transfer a museum’s worth of content saving history and money.
This train incorporates significant technology: free mobile wi-fi, moving map displays, comfortable seats, an armrest of controls that I won’t have enough time to decipher. It also has maintains many of the traditions: the conductor’s cap, the dining car, the rolling scenery. Some things are thankfully gone: coal smoke. Some things haven’t changed: a wobbly ride (how did Twain write?, and how did they ever serve hot food?), noisy neighbors (because children will be children), and the inevitable yawn from hours of inactivity.
We live in an era of great change. Most of our changes are caused by technology; though now, technology is offering us new ways to change. We’ve become more aware of the rest of humanity. Our sense of village extends around the planet. A tragedy in Boston is met with compassion in Iran. An arctic species in peril finds advocates in the tropics.
I imagine Twain on this train. He would be exploring every facet, introducing himself to each passenger, possibly from coach if he mimicked most of his career, or from the empty business class section reminiscent of his wealthier days. Considering how much of his work is in the public domain, he might have to work up new material or accumulate money from honoraria. And he’d probably come away impressed, both positively and negatively, and would tell us about it humorously.
Changes aren’t panaceas, except that they do always make the future different from the past. One trick is to acknowledge the positive, and work with it; while, acknowledging the negative and avoiding it.
With that, I’ll quit typing, post this to the blog, share it out to social media, and relax back in my seat for a wobbly nap with glimpses of the eternal and natural view. The headphones stay in though. Noisy neighbors don’t change.