I had a moment of pure, Neal Stephenson style future shock last night, and I want to try to tell you about it.
First of all, you probably know that I commute between West Chester, PA and New York City every day, five days a week. I get on a train at 6:11 AM, and I step off the train at 6:18PM. For two and a half hours each way, five hours a day, I sit in an Amtrak seat with my nose buried in a laptop, wrapped in a digital bubble.
My laptop has a Verizon card, so I get reasonably fast internet the whole way. I wear a set of two-ear Bluethooth headphones that talk both to my computer and my phone: I know that the phone is ringing because iTunes mutes itself. The landline phone in my office is forwarded to my SkypeIn number, so if someone calls my extension, a notification pops up on my computer screen (which runs both OS X and Windows XP simultaneously) letting me know about it and asking if I want to take the call. I can take cameraphone pictures, upload them to Flickr, and maybe get picked up by national news media — all without ever having to be in any particular place. I am a Samurai Warrior of Dweeb.
I do not say this to be boastful — first of all, this would be like boasting that you’re REALLY into stamp collecting or salamanders; even though I’m proud of the way I’ve managed to work out my commute, really all I’ve done is assemble tools other people have made into a coherent system. Second, there’s a lot of drawbacks to this lifestyle. For one thing, since Amtrak changed my departing train schedule from 6:30 to 6:11, there’s no time to go to the gym in the morning anymore. Second, while other dads can leave for work twenty minutes late and get to work twenty minutes late, if I leave for work twenty minutes late, I arrive THREE HOURS late, which means I’m not flexible at all. Third, I’m not sure that spending so much time jacked in to my little electronic envelope, on a moving train, completely separated from the, you know, constraints of physical location, is a good thing. Let me tell you about this moment yesterday.
My train runs from Harrisburg, through Lancaster (and Amish country), into Philadelphia, and up to New York. I live about ten miles from where Amish country starts, and there are often Amish commuters on the train, coming in to the markets in Philly. So often I’m sitting across the aisle from an Amish fellow with a Prince Valiant haircut, raucous hat head, and a big white beard. We’re pretty much doing the same thing — traveling a long way to or from work — and so our working lives are really similar in many ways. Plus, you know, we wear the same pants (Amish broadfall pants have a hammer pocket in the thigh that’s perfect for cellphones.)
Last night, there was a big family group, laughing and talking, and one of the regulars comes back holding his four-year old son up by the armpits, and the boy is wearing the conductor’s brimmed hat, and he looks like a miniature Amtrak conductor because of his neat black clothes and hat, and everyone laughs, and one of the women doing needlepoint holds up a little Razr cameraphone to take a picture, and I suddenly realize that it’s not a Razr cameraphone at all but a little plastic mirror so the boy can see himself, and I remember that OF COURSE an Amish family isn’t going to be using a cameraphone, and I realize that even though we’re in the same place, doing the same thing, and we’re all separated from reality in one way (taking the train a long way on a regular basis kind of messes with your concept of distance), but we’re completely different in another way.
The part that made me dizzy was remembering the lines that included us (we’re all road warriors) and the lines that separated us (I use Electronic Everything, they use Electronic Nothing), and realizing that those lines are really hard to see, sometimes. Especially because the Amish don’t hate technology; they just don’t want to be dependent. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised at all to find that this group DID, in fact, have a Razr cameraphone, but were just very intentional in the use of it. The part that shocked me was re-realizing that a group of folks that I had a LOT in common with were actually very VERY different from me, in both small and large ways. Which you might think is silly (they’re all wearing very distinctive clothes, duh!), but when you start commuting so far every day, you get funny ideas about where things are.
For example: earlier yesterday morning, when I got off the train, there was a glass-enclosed panel truck parked outside Penn station, with a ton of sand, palm trees, and three bikini models inside. It was intended to be a thousand cubic feet of Mexico Summertime Beach on the truck, in the middle of a gray rainy day, and it was a nice hack, but it totally set me up for feeling fragmented. “Oh look, a little piece of Mexico, teleported to Penn Station!” was the point of the truck. “Sure, you can commute a hundred miles to work. Look, these models instantaneously commuted TWO THOUSAND MILES to frolic on seventh avenue!” (Yes, I’m perfectly aware that they came from all of three blocks away, and probably had strong Greek accents or whatever.)
To make things even more difficult, I’ve been re-reading The Diamond Age, an a Sony Reader, for heaven’s sake, which means that I’m reading a book-that-is-not-a-book about a book-that-is-not-a-book, and I’m starting to get all crosseyed with the futuristicness of it. Physical space not important! Cultural boundaries disappearing, then suddenly reappearing! I think it’s either time to get a mohawk and spring for the neurosite cybernetic implant, or take a hard look at exactly, and in which ways, I want to make “divorcing myself from the constraints of reality” a big part of my day.
I’m still sticking with the Amish pants, though. Broadfall pants 4 ever!