Vacation Ontology

Vacation Ontology

The BBC’s Tech Guru (and my colleague on the iSociety Advisory Board), Bill Thompson, has been on holiday in Venice and has been musing on the experience of being (largely) disconnected from the Net. He seems to find it untraumatic. “I use my mobile connection to send some e-mail”, he writes, “and I go into a cyber cafe to download the torrent of spam and occasional useful message. But apart from a brief glance at a couple of news sites to check that no major disasters have befallen the world – and the hottest day on record in London doesn’t count – I have hardly used the web at all.”

Bill goes on to mount one of his hobby horses — the pointlessness of Blogging. “In fact, I had stopped paying careful attention to the lists and the blogs even before I left the country. It seemed to me that the number of useless postings and blog entries was starting to increase and there was less and less there that was really of interest. This could be the sign of a worrying phenomenon. Perhaps the blogs, after a brief time when they were seen by some as a wholly new wave of internet development, are losing their appeal.

The earliest bloggers have been at it for two years now – how many days can someone keep on posting to their LiveJournal site, or visiting Blogger to add more details about their cat’s mysterious illness? “

Bill’s little rant is a good example of a venerable genre which I call ‘vacation ontology’. Hack goes on holiday, is temporarily disconnected from his frenetic life and is shocked into pondering The Meaning Of It All. (I know, because I’ve done it myself.) But it would be unwise to take these holiday musings too seriously.

For the record, my kids and I have had — courtesy of some generous friends — an idyllic week in Provence, in a villa with a wonderful view, a pool and no phone connection. My Bluetooth mobile worked up to a point (9600 bps), but basically we were cut off from the Net for a week. This deprivation, however, did not induce in me the same reaction as it did in Bill. Rather it made me realise how essential an always-on connection is for a civilised life. I missed the regular email traffic with friends, and — more intensely — being able to access the resources of the Web. Our hosts and I had lots of conversations which would have been enriched if we’d been able to access Google. Who wrote that? What year did Popper die? What’s the weather forecast for Provence for tomorrow? What was the title of that essay by…? Do you remember that review of X that was in the New Republic? Or was it Salon? How do you add music soundtracks in iMovie? And so on.

Before we went to Provence, I had asked our host if the house had an Internet connection. “No”, he replied. “If it had, why would I ever go home?” (He lives and works in Amsterdam).