Thursday, August 07, 2014

Day 29 - Where are the breadcrumbs when you need them?

On Friday, I will have my internet connection cut off, and it will not be restored until Monday.
The prospect of an entire weekend where the only internet connection I will have is via 3G on my iPhone is a bit strange. I watch TV over BBC iPlayer, read blogs and newspapers online, and solve crossword puzzles online.
I suppose it's a good discipline to do without it for a weekend (although, let's be honest, I'm not actually going to be off my iPhone all weekend so I'm hardly going to be offline) but it's amazing for me to think about the difference between now, and when I first started using the internet.

It is 1996, and I am an undergraduate student. I have never really used the internet before, only read about it. It sounds strange and dangerous and enticing. I can 'meet' people on the other side of the world that could turn out to be rapists or millionaires. I can communicate almost instantaneously with anyone.
Most websites I visit are dominated by frames that my browser cannot quite decipher. Navigation is frequently terrible. It's like being abandoned on the ground floor of a library, aware that there is a hell of a lot of information there, but with no clear idea about how to access any of it.
Email is read and written via Unix. I forget my password for an entire year. The sky does not fall.

I think what is strangest about all of this, is that the internet was the beginning of the virtual realities that my beloved sci fi had been predicting. I suppose the inelegance and clumsiness of the interface offered at this time made the whole experience anti-climactic. I found it non-intuitive and intimidating, while all of the fiction I had read made it sound intuitive and immersive.

I suppose it didn't help that we were accessing it on networked PCs in a computer room. I was paranoid that I was going to embarrass myself in front of other, more skilled undergraduates. The social issues at play paralysed me further.

It is 2014, and I am a lecturer. I very rarely go a day without accessing the internet. It is a quotidian part of my life, and, far from exciting, seems mundane. I correspond with a number of people I have not met in person for years, and with a few people I have never met.
Badly designed websites give me feelings of nostalgia and I enjoy accessing their information (as long as I can rely on elegant and modern design for the most part). Navigation is frequently effortless. This is a library I know well, and am on first-name terms with the other readers, the librarians, and the staff of the coffee shop.
Email is accessible on a number of platforms and the IMAP protocol means that how I read it is largely irrelevant. I have over 20,000 emails in my inbox. I write emails every day. If I didn't have access to email for a week, I would find it difficult to do my job.

There are two conclusions I draw from all of this:
  1. I'm going to need, at some point, to find other contributors to post as guests when I am on holiday or am unavoidably without internet (please message me!). For this weekend, I will write posts in advance to be released on each day.
  2. I often forget what it was like to not know what was going on.
That second point is (I think) really important. We have to go right back to the start and remember what it was like to be intimidated by knowledge, by our peers, and by the lecturers. I'm all for letting students get on with things, but at the same time we should be looking to design their interactions with data and opportunities so as to reduce barriers.

How do we do that?
I guess we have to just remember, and go from there.

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