From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

July 22, 2015*: It was nineteen years ago today.

During its first ten years the Boidem didn't encounter an existential crisis. I occasionally didn't meet deadlines that I'd set for myself, but I had no difficulty finding issues to write about. Month after month topics presented themselves, often with a greater frequency than my carefully placed "occasional" in the Boidem's subtitle allowed room for. It was new territory, and there was always something to explore. I suppose it also helped that though there were certainly numerous other "explorers" of that territory, we weren't too numerous, and as a result many of my observations benefitted from a primacy that made even the banal seem original. Original or not, there was an undeniable feeling of newness to my attempts to make sense of the medium, and I suppose that primarily that was what kept me going even when it had become clear that that "newness" was wearing out. At least a handful of times, leading up to what became (until now) the final Boidem column, I'd admitted that the thrill was gone (though, admittedly considerably earlier, I also reflected on what a long strange trip it had been), and at some point I simply let this experiment take its place somewhere on a shelf in the stacks of that vast digital library of items that perhaps somewhere down the line will be considered historically significant, and might even merit study and/or retrospective investigation, but at least at present won't necessarily be missed.

I won't claim that there's a Rip-Van-Winkle effect underway, but the digital landscape is considerably different today than it was while the Boidem was still consistently being posted. The words "iPhone" or "smartphone", for instance, never showed up in any of the columns, and "mobile phones" only seven times. MySpace got a few more mentions than Facebook did, and those were still only a handful, with Twitter getting only a couple more. GPS was mentioned only four times, and Google Maps and Google Earth in only one column. So pretty obviously a great deal has changed in the five years during which a Boidem column hasn't appeared. But though this suggests that there's no lack of material for the Boidem to cover, the ubiquity of online tools, and the extent to which they've become integral parts of almost everyone's lives, makes dealing with them in the Boidem more difficult, and perhaps also unnecessary.

Undoubtedly the ascendance of Mobile has changed the way we relate to the internet - not only ushering in the new, but leaving a few favorites of mine by the wayside. Most of the issues raised in the Boidem dealt, in one way or another, with questions of access to information, and how ubiquitous access changed both what we know and how we know it. Mobile has, on the one hand, made that ubiquity even more prominent than before, yet on the other, it seems to have pushed "information" aside and made "being in contact" the predominant aspect of our digital lives. I suppose that what always fascinated me was the mix of these two - information and "contact" (I prefer that to "communication"), and this served as the focus, or at least as the jumping off point, for most of the Boidem's columns. But if a number of years ago the promise of information on tap raised enticing questions about how we might run our lives, it seems that if this non-stop access to information ever actually interested us, once it became a reality and was continually dripping in our pockets, we swiftly discovered that it wasn't all that special.

And yet as soon as I finished writing that paragraph I felt more than just a pang of embarrassment. Not special? How could I write such a thing! Our lives today are so totally different than they were before this explosion of access to information. And the access is only part of it. Another is the immediacy, and the toll that takes on our capacity for sympathy. Chances are good that most of the residents of Europe in the 18th century didn't know that much of a world existed beyond a radius of a few hundred kilometers (if that). That being the case, they had no problem with not feeling concern for the victims of a tsunami in South East Asia since they didn't know that the tsunami had taken place. Now that we know, it seems we can't forget, and as the world gets smaller we feel a greater commitment to know even more.

Be that as it may, it's still the case that special is a function of the degree to which we've become accustomed to something. So it may not even be a case of feeling a commitment to know, but simply of having access to knowing, and of having time on our hands. Ten years ago, when cellphones weren't yet smartphones and (if I recall correctly) the word mobile still hadn't penetrated into our day-to-day vocabulary, I actually made one of my few accurate predictions about technology. After acknowledging the enormous influence the internet was having on our lives I noted:

But were I called upon to choose the technological innovation with the greatest influence on our lives, I'd probably go with the cellphone rather than with the internet.

Considering that I seem to have gotten that right, it's perhaps strange that I've personally kept my distance from the admittedly plentiful benefits that mobile access offers. But it's (again) precisely this ubiquity that brings me back to wondering whether the Boidem hasn't run its course. If years ago people would exclaim "you mean you study this sort of stuff?", the question was raised because there was still something esoteric about our online lives (or simply about having an online life) and the ways in which internet technologies influenced what we used to call "real life". But since then the amount of "serious" research around these subjects has mushroomed beyond all proportion. As I noted in 2007:

There are even those who might claim that the internet was invented by social scientists who feared that they were running out of subjects to study.
With so much "serious" research being conducted, who needs a semi-detached observer who seems considerably more interested in slightly off the beaten path manifestations of digitality than in quantifiable expressions of typical use. Today I might be asked that same question, but for an almost opposite reason. Digitality and the internet have become so fully integrated into our lives that it's hard to imagine that someone would actually devote his or her time to examining them. Regardless of perspective, whether that of today's banal or of yesterday's exceptional, however, over the past few months quite a few "issues" that still cause me to exclaim "hey, that's interesting!" have accumulated in my files. And that suggests that perhaps there are still more of these columns to come.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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