Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The High Road and the Low Road

My world is full of technology. Everyone's is these days, for the most part. Sometimes there are some interesting juxtapositions between high tech and low tech aspects of my world. Today, in addition to self-checkout at grocery stores and hardware stores, you can also rent movies from a vending machine for a dollar a day, right there at the grocery store. How cool is that?

Last night, I rented Stranger Than Fiction from a DVD rental machine. All three of us loved the movie. Small Person laughed out loud as soon as he realized that Will Ferrell's character could hear the narrator, and everything about the film - from the graphics that showed how his brain saw the world, to the real end of the story - really worked. What really stuck with the junior member of the partnership, though, was the author's typewriter.

By the end of the movie, Small Person was expressing a wish for a typewriter that he could use, a manual one, no less. It turns out, that I have one - my high school graduation present from my parents. For some reason, he was interested in the typewriter being portable too and it turns out further that this is exactly what I have. Before we all had computers (let along laptops), my parents wanted me to have a portable typewriter so that I could be anywhere in the world and still write - letters, manuscripts, resumes, whatever.

And after all these years, I still have my old portable Olympia B-12 and it's in terrific shape though it hasn't exactly seen a lot of use lately. Even so, it works great and has some rather cool features - like an automated space bar, and a backspace key - that weren't so common on manual typewriters. Of course, manual typewriters - portable or otherwise - weren't exactly common either by the early 80's.

In any case, even with the ribbon pretty dried out because it's been ages since I've used or replaced it, Small Person happily sat down to type on it right away, coming up with some rather amusing stuff in the process. If you happen to run across a story about a wristwatch that's as unhappy about screaming as it is about having ended up lost and on Mars, in all likelihood it started here in this house.

His keyboarding skills are fine but the added pressure needed to get the keys to strike right was a bit tough for him. We figure it's good finger-strengthening exercise for the piano, though, and keep encouraging him to stay with standard fingering rather than lapsing into two-finger keyboarding.

So how strange is this - a digital native going back to visit the old country, seeing for himself why QWERTY keyboards are the way that they are and learning about platens, end-of-line bells, carriage returns and so forth and so on? Next session, I'll teach him about correcting mistakes in the world where backspacing doesn't equal deleting.

For now, I'm just letting him enjoy himself.

Meanwhile, I myself am playing on the computer with ActiveWords, after having heard about this pretty nifty little tool at a recent Seattle Lunch 2.0 free lunch/networking event for geeks. I'm not sure exactly how I feel about capturing keystrokes just yet, nor do I have good data yet on how much memory the application consumes. I can say, however, that the ease with which I can now launch some of my favorite applications makes it pretty slick to use and I know that's just the tip of the iceberg.

For instance - I have also worked out how to use ActiveWords to navigate to URL's I visit a lot. Right now, I'm navigating quite a bit to a couple of different Basecamp accounts, one for Startup Weekend Seattle, and another that we've set up for one of my closest friends who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

What we decided was that all of the logistics around battling breast cancer - researching information, gathering the right health care professionals, strategizing and making plans, mobilizing all of the friends and family who are offering to be resources, and so forth - was just like managing the kinds of projects some of us do for work. And so now we have Project Boob Management, which makes me - for the time being anyway - the Project Boob Manager. Life takes odd turns.

As useful and interesting as high tech can be, I find it can also take over our lives in ways that are not so helpful. Now that we both have laptops, there are times when I realize that Tall Person and I are both in the living room together, navigating around in our own personal online worlds with little or no conversation between us. Something similar happens when we read sometimes too, but somehow it's different and even more disconnected when it's the computers. It's times like these that I see how important it is to strike a balance between high tech and low tech.

For those of you who who agree and are still striving for that kind of balance in your own lives, you might be interested in the Soul Tech workshop put on by Leif Hansen. If you missed out on tickets for Startup Weekend Seattle, it might be a great way to spend your Saturday afternoon this weekend. I wish there was a feasible way for me to be in both places at once, as it's a topic I feel strongly enough about to sometimes wish it was my workshop. Leif is good people though, and I'm glad he's getting such great attention for his work.

In the end, high tech that helps facilitate more human interaction - by making it easier to find each other and work together, or by saving time and reducing stress so that we have more time to spend with one another with fewer headaches - is probably some of the highest and best use of technology. Where it interferes with human interaction is probably a mistake, something I'm far more likely to think about the next time I go to the grocery store and am making the choice between using a check-stand with a real-live checker and going through the automated self-check.

Those automated movie vending machines are way cool though, just about any way you look at it. I have even noticed DVD kiosks in hospitals. I know from past experience that sometimes connecting over a good escapist-type movie can be a great way to recover from surgery or get through chemo if it's one of those times when no one really feels like talking that much.

I'll be sure to add that one to the Basecamp-supported Project Boob Management idea list.

And you should feel welcome to add a comment if you have questions, thoughts, ideas, around taking the high (tech) road vs. the low road.

How is technology helping or hindering what's important in life?