Almost exactly one year ago, I gave up my no-longer-quite-so-beloved apartment in the Lower East Side to move (temporarily, I thought) to San Francisco. Five months later I still hadn’t returned to take up my life in New York; twelve months later, I’m pretty sure I’m not going back. The intervening months have been a bit of a blur: Seattle, then Portland, then Oklahoma, then Los Angeles, then New York, then San Francisco. Again. For a summer, at least. FYI: I will be working here. Very exciting.
I think I might qualify as a nomad; it’s an overused term. I met this guy in Portland who "doesn't do winter"; he spends half the year in Australia and half the year in Europe/America. He never keeps a permanent address either; he's always in sublets and having his mail sent on to the next stop. Now, that's a nomad; I'd rather just call myself "temporarily dislocated."
Things I discovered about me and my relationship to the technologies that support my life:
I. As homes go, a laptop isn’t a bad one.
Using Craigslist, I rented sight unseen a studio in New York from February to May. It was on the first floor of a relatively nice street in the West Village, so I thought: “Hey, I’m living the lush life now.” I arrived to find a non-functional lock on the front door, a front window without any lock or bars at all, a large front window with a curtainrod that mysteriously refused to stay up, and a steam heater that was...inconsistent. So for the first few days and nights, I was cold, constantly calculating the likelihood of robbery, and totally visible to any enquiring minds walking past. My only consolation was my laptop, which provided warmth (courtesy of the PowerBook battery, which runs hot), light (courtesy of the little glowing screen) and companionship (courtesy of email and IM). And the cell phone was good too. I huddled under the blankets, curled myself around its warm silver skin, and tried to remember why I’d wanted to leave Los Angeles.
II. Put not your faith in laptops
The computer-as-home model, I think, works best when you have other support systems already in place. When my computer started stumbling a month later, I tried to pretend the constant freezes weren’t happening. I was in the middle of a major project, and could not imagine coping without her (yes, she’s a she) for two whole weeks while the Apple techs ripped her guts out. So I soldiered on for another month. Things got worse. First she froze every hour, then she froze every 15 minutes, then she froze every 15 minutes and refused to start up again without a two-hour long break. Which, yes: was not so good for that major project. I had her all backed up to disk, but I couldn’t face renting another machine for two...whole...weeks. The expense! The inconvenience! In retrospect, I think I just couldn’t deal with the consequences of even temporarily losing the only continuity I had... (I don’t want to push this analogy too far, but when I signed the release authorizing Apple to wipe the hard drive if necessary, I felt like I was signing a do-not-resuscitate agreement. Very painful.)
III. Put not your faith in WiFi, unless you have an indepth knowledge of the neighborhood
In London: no open access points to be found. In New York: at least three A.P.s within range of my apartment, with one offering consistently fantastic bandwidth. But no open points near my favorite cafe, oh no. I assume that's because everyone who lives around there knows full well the slackers in the cafe are using their broadband to download music. I send my thanks to the unknown person who provided my connectivity for 2.5 months. I’d have PayPalled some money each month to help out with the broadband bill, but hey...there was no way to work out who it was
. Sorry about that.
IV. Your friends and family actually do need to know where you are
If not for their own peace of mind, then just for their own ability to forward your phone bills to the correct address (Yes, this actually happened. Very embarrassing, especially as I mostly deal with all this stuff online.) Also, your friends will not be able to invite you out for a drink if they don’t know what city you’re in. Remember that. Having to explicitly tell people where I was at all times came as a mild shock. I had figured that being constantly reachable through mobile phone/email would be enough. It’s not. Even though I find it a little egotistical to send out a mass emailing every six weeks updating my location information, at least people in my vicinity know to ask me out for lunch. I’m going to be in SF for long enough that I can’t really be bothered, but I think an RSS feed for my location would have solved the problem nicely. That way, I wouldn’t have had to bother anyone and people wouldn’t have to keep checking the blog. (If you’re actually the sort of person who asks me out for drinks, and you do check confectious to see whether I’m in town...Thanks. I’ll get the next round.)
V. It’s amazing how few clothes you need...and how many gadgets
Admittedly, I borrowed a winter coat the night before I left Los Angeles for New York. But there’s no option but to haul around the hard drive, and camera, and the attendant power supplies and data cords, and maybe a mouse. Shocking how bulky that stuff is when you actually start hauling it through airports in a suitcase. The hard drive especially. What I missed most, actually, was a printer. Driving directions. Flight information. Presentation revisions. Budgets. Schedules. Work contracts and health insurance applications and reimbursement slips that require paper copies and signatures. Faxing, for crying out loud. Faxing!
VI. Without ready access to paper, putting your trust in bits takes a lot of trust
So I had to get health insurance, as my university finally bumped me off its rolls. And since I didn’t have a printer/scanner/fax machine handy, I wanted to do it all online. But here’s the catch: buying health insurance in the US involves giving away lots of sensitive, sensitive personal data. How am I supposed to know whether the “registered California health care broker” I went with wasn’t some shady front? How much do I really trust the authorities who granted those authentication certifications, and how bad would it be if I got burned? And do I really feel okay about sending all this stuff out over an unencrypted WiFi connection? (FYI: It was fine. But I spent a week wondering whether I’d just made a colossal mistake out of a desire to avoid spending two hours and $30 on the local Internet café’s fax machine and printer.) I started thinking a lot then about the potential business for privacy brokers — people/systems who would just manage the access to my personal data for me
, because I honestly don’t have the expertise (or the time) to do it myself. That’s why stock brokers exist, right?
VII. I am now a helpless cellphone zombie
Since all my collaborators are in different cities/neighborhoods/timezones and they don’t always know where I
am, I’ve become one of those jerks who walk around, dead to the world around them, talking loudly and insistently on the phone at all hours of the day or night. I once got caught by someone from ITP yelling about server problems in front of the Barnes and Noble at Astor Place. Which sort of reminded me that the world may be my cubicle...but it's not everyone else's. Once I got used to being always reachable and always...reaching
, I found it very difficult to walk around the city without an invisible companion. I’m trying to ramp down my cellphone consumption a bit (the bills are exorbitant), but now I almost feel...lonely if I’m on the street without a voice in my ear. Can you hear me? I’m driving home now...where are you? Oh, I know that place. I’ve been there before
How much time did I spend during all this wandering talking about the places where I had once been and where my friends now were?
’I know this may sound far-fetched,’ I said to Elizabeth Vrba, ‘but what if I were asked, “What is the big brain for”?, I would be tempted to say, “For singing our way through the wilderness.”’ – Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines