Irene-ocalypse: not ‘Lord of the Flies’ quite yet

August 31, 2011

For the past few days I’ve been engaged in a social experiment, not of my choosing, and possible only in the digital age. Hurricane Irene knocked out power, and, more importantly, most Internet service in my modest corner of Westchester County, New York — rendering one of the most affluent parts of the country a backwoods, digital have-not.

Until today even Metro North couldn’t brave these climes. Yet life and work must go on. Stitching together solutions to do what has become as natural as breathing is now a challenge.

Welcome to Basecamp Starbucks.

As I wrote on Sunday (and published only when I could, on Monday, when some Internet returned to these parts here), I actually am thriving in this partial return to the dark ages. The peace and quiet that cannot be artificially introduced is intoxicating — an adopted child of the Internet age whose formative years were (ahem) somewhat pre-digital.

Although my 17-year-old daughter can’t take it. She’s almost prioritizing friendships based on who has power (i.e., Wi-Fi) and begging me to let her tether my phone to her computer when she deigns to come home. I can put up with a lot, but you can’t pry my iPhone from my cold dead hands. I also can’t cotton to draining precious battery life on Facebook when my power sources are a) a running car and b) a Starbucks that won’t open until morning.

Starbucks is an oasis, but not a full service one. Even under normal circumstances these locations are a magnet for connectivity addicts who may or may not do the right thing by buying a coffee every now and then. My own local place was shut down Sunday, flooded in front and back. But they were back on the power grid Monday and became my satellite office, along with many others who just needed to quickly check their e-mail or needed a power source during the time they would be spending underwater at home.

Alas, there was no Wi-Fi to be had here. By Wednesday, even this location’s point of sale system was down, making it cash only. Wi-Fi, provided by AT&T, was still a distant memory. Add to that that my cable company’s Wi-Fi grid, available here because of proximity to the Mount Kisco rail station across the street, was also inexplicably non-functional today after being vibrant yesterday.

Thus, Basecamp Starbucks became a mere haven for re-charging yourself with coffee and some bare bones snacks, and for the batteries of the gear that use you’ll need to triage later at home. Other than that, it was strictly BYOI(nternet)

I brought a power block with me each time I decamped, a nice Belkin model that swivels to make room for the other wall plug and that sports two USB ports to charge devices without taking up one of its three grounded outlets. Toting one of these around is apparently a novel concept to many. I have seldom encountered anyone (at the airport, for example) who brings their own block, so that sparse AC wall outlets can be multiplied.

Road Warriors, heed this: It’s a sort of take a penny, leave a quarter concept. So, people, get with the program.

Work, an “always on” proposition in my business, has been possible only because I have two phones on different carriers. I can tether to either, and their coverage areas seem somehow to complement one another. I also have a Clear dongle. No 4G up here even in the best of times. But 3G is alive today for the first time since the storm, and is my primary for today.

The working conditions? A tad more loose than office casual. There is the occasional baby crying, which is not a usual workplace sound (unless you mean “baby” and “crying” metaphorically). Since this location has not seen fit to put a sign in the window saying the Wi-Fi is not functioning, there is a steady stream of people who get all settled in just to discover there is no Internet here. And they all seem to sit next to me. Some are angry at me for breaking the bad news to them. Some refuse to believe me, and shop for a “yes.”

Wi-Fi providers, heed this: When you don’t have it, stop flaunting it. Shut off your wireless routers, which broadcast your Wi-Fi name (SSID) even if that device isn’t connected to the Internet.

As it is with any crisis, people react in different ways, even though stress and angst will have zero impact on the outcome. For some this is “The Little House on the Prairie” and for others its “Lord of the Flies”. Really, the toughest part has been remembering to feed the parking meter.

We’ll see who survives Irene-ocalypse with their dignity intact. I plan on being one of them, as I go for my fifth venti Americano of the day.

Follow +John C Abell on Google+.

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