Adrift from memory bliss

Kevin Fong is forced to come to terms with electronic isolation

February 2, 2012

I’m in a conference hotel trying to hook up to the free internet. Outside, people are taking advantage of the local ski resort’s amenities while I’m stuck here trying to get some work done.

I ring reception and muster my best French: “Le wi-fi marche pas!

The guy at reception feigns surprise and suggests I try later. But, after talking to my colleagues, it soon becomes clear that in this hotel, l’internet is working for no one. We all hassle reception again. The concierge tells us they’ll get someone in to fix it tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes.

Recently, Wikipedia went on strike, presenting us with blank screens rather than the usual fast “facts”. It was protesting against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act proposed in the US.

Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales encouraged the public to rise up against what he sees as a threat to free speech.

“Imagine a world without free information,” said Jimmy. I did. It scared the living daylights out of me. But it turns out I needn’t have bothered. I could have waited until I came to this hotel and had the chance to live it for real.

As I stare forlornly at the “no internet access” message on my computer, I feel as though I’ve stepped out of a DeLorean time machine into the 1980s. This is a serious state of affairs. I have been unplugged. It’s like the failure of a vital organ.

One of my more tech-savvy mates refers to the internet as his “off-board memory”. This is a pretty accurate description. Increasingly, that vast repository of electronic information serves as a substitute for having to remember stuff - making the absence of internet access a state akin to amnesia.

Meanwhile, there’s growing discontent at the conference. Some of the delegates band together and march on the front desk, but they have underestimated the quality of the opposition. Part three of the concierge’s zillion-step obfuscation plan is to give us the address of an internet cafe he knows. We trudge through the snow, prepared to pay through the nose for pastries and cheese in search of a data stream, but when we get there the cafe is closed and looks like it hasn’t been open for some time. Somewhere in the warmth of the hotel reception, a concierge is sniggering.

Disgruntlement turns to desperation. I talk with colleagues of my plan to ski to the larger resort on the other side of the mountain. My friend and ninja snowboarder Richard thinks this is a great idea and considers coming with me.

“How good a skier are you?” he asks.

“Brilliant,” I reply confidently.

That’s actually not true, but I have recently tried to improve myself. The instructor dragged me around the mountain for a couple of hours and finished by saying solemnly: “Kevin, with your skiing you must change a lot of fings,” which as far as I can tell means: “You’re a rubbish skier.” But ski talent aside, I’m furious and desperate enough to give it a go. Hell, the whole endeavour suddenly strikes me as rather Shackletonesque.

But in the morning, the prospect of ascending through the cloud base with my life’s work strapped to my back in the hope that I might negotiate safe, off-piste passage on skis without destroying either the laptop or myself in the process suddenly looks less attractive.

Back to the concierge then. After further pestering, he offers me a seat in the hotel admin office where I will be free to browse l’internet on its computer. He serves up a keyboard with a French layout rather than the traditional QWERTY. It’s like trying to ride a bicycle set up so that the front wheel turns left when you turn the handlebars to the right.

This is not ideal, but I hatch a plan to hack into the hotel network with my laptop. I’ll do it through the Ethernet port in the office. I reason that people who don’t know how to run a decent wi-fi service are unlikely to have much in the way of electronic security. This turns out to be true. But what they lack in electronic sophistication, they make up for with a padlock and box that covers the Ethernet port. I’ve got to admit that lo-fi is kicking my ass here.

It is then that I realise that the French approach to wi-fi is very simple. In their eyes, there are some places where it is not absolutely essential for the world and his wife to get in touch with you. In fact, there are locations where the absence of electronic intrusion is a positive benefit - for example, ski resorts in the French Alps. And upon further consideration, you start to think that they might be on to something. Unplugging for a while might not be such a bad thing after all.

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