Getting Lost With Bob

My wife tells a great story about getting lost with her father somewhere around Grand Canyon National Park. My father-in-law is a strange, though very well-meaning guy. He's thoroughly prepared in all circumstances, most famously, in our family circles at least, with compass and a rope. When she was in high school, my wife and her father took a trip to the Grand Canyon. At some point, she saw an outcropping of rock and decided she wanted to climb to the top. I might have said no, or at least made a half-hearted attempt. Not Bob. Bob tied one end of a rope to himself and another end to his daughter and off they went.[Image credit Noodlefish]

My favorite thing about Bob, and this is true for many geeks, is that his thinking only seems to come up halfway. He certainly had my wife's safety in mind. He is almost three times her weight, so if she did fall, there is a chance the rope would hold and he could pull he back up. But it never occurred to him that he might be the one to fall. Then he'll simply pull her in after.

I think this is a great metaphor for our adoption of a digital lifestyle. It seems fun. There's a mountain to climb! Okay, not a mountain, but a big pile of rocks, and they are stacked up in a very cool way. Don't worry about how we're going to get there. I've got rope, and plenty of it.

What's the rope in this metaphor? It's our safety net, abandoning our older, paper and analog based lifestyle so quickly. It's all the ways we're interconnected with each other. It would be so easy for us to catch ourselves while we're falling, unless we're tied to the wrong person at the other end.

The rope is our reliance on the cloud. I don't have to worry about all my photos, my e-mail, my documents. Those are all stored with Yahoo, Google, Microsoft. In the past, we would literally have paper versions of all of these. You might run into a burning house to save the most important papers in your life. Now, we rely on a few massive corporations instead.

The rope is our reliance on the network. It's our trust in our providers, our trust in our government. It's our belief that the systems won't fail, and that the system will always treat us fairly. If that last statement makes you shudder, it's the same feeling I got imagining my wife and her father running up a pile of rocks with a rope tied to each of them.

As I've said before, my father in law, Bob, is not digital, and the digital world is passing him by. He used to navigate with a compass, a map and a sense of direction. The rental car place would usually provide the map. He didn't spring for the GPS unit, he doesn't understand them, anyway. It caused trouble on his last visit here.

I expect him to arrive after 10AM. At noon, I get a call that he's at a Target store, he wants directions to my house.

"Which Target?"

"The one in Plano."

I give him directions, but it doesn't sit right. From the airport, he'd pass two other Target stores on the way to my house. If he somehow searched for a target on his phone or asked for directions from a local, they would point him to a third Target north of my house, not in Plano, which is south. I called him back. I was right. He was north of me. He wasn't in Plano after all.

There were no obvious signs telling him which town he was in. He knows my town is less developed, and Plano is larger and older. When he found himself at a huge shopping center, he thought he was in Plano. There used to be obvious, physical signs when you went from one place to another. Now, without a digital guide, you might never know.

When Bob leaves, we get a call from him on his way to the airport. He's missed his flight. He got his arrival time and departure time screwed up, so he was arriving when he should have been leaving. I set alarms on my smartphone calendar for just this sort of thing. I sync with my Google account, and lots of devices start beeping at just the right moment. Bob has no such devices.

My wife and I race around frantically for all of 10 minutes, trying to find him a new flight. The Web does not come through. All of the Web sites we use for ticketing are useless when you need to leave in then next couple hours. We finally break down and use the phone, calling a live human being, who helps us very quickly.

Sometimes you just need a person on the other end of the call. Companies should understand this, and give that person far more power and knowledge than we could ever find in an automated system. Four Web sites and two automated airline ticketing systems couldn't help me get my father-in-law out of my hair, but a real live person understood, and he was booked on a flight leaving before dinner.

We call back Bob.

"Okay, I should be able to make it in time, but I think I'm lost. I pulled over to talk to you guys, and now I'm not sure which way to go on the highway."

"Go south, Bob. Keep going south."

On the other end of the phone, I'm sure Bob is beaming. He's probably pulled his compass from an interior pocket of his coat. It's a massive piece of equipment that straps to his wrist. It's not digital, it's a dial floating in liquid. It has a cover on the face that you snap open to read. The entire apparatus is larger than any watch you've seen, including the newer smartphone watches with GPS navigation built in.

It's very cool. It's got an appeal that is almost steampunk, but better. Steampunk is fake, technology from an alternate reality. This is the real deal. It works at sea, hiking in the woods, wherever you need. In our modern context, a massive compass is usually completely useless. But not today. Today, Bob is heading to the airport, and he needs to go south.