Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Snow has a remarkable ability to turn a speedy city into a stationary one. The societal imperative to always be on the move collapses when government officials start issuing warnings stating that it is imperative to stay inside. Even should the projected blizzard wind up being a less severe winter storm, a large helping of snow (and the threat of a larger amount) slows everything down and generally serves to disrupt people’s standard routines.
Of late the term “disruption” has become one that is often encountered in reference to technological changes that promise to alter the way people live their daily lives, it seems to connote speed, newness and the rush towards the future. A heavy snowfall, to the contrary, is a rather different form of disruption, it simply states: actually, you are not going anywhere. And thus there is something that is almost charming about the prospect of a serious snow accumulation, for it acts as a simple reminder that the fast conveniences many have grown accustomed to are ultimately rather dependent upon the mercurial moods of the weather.
The apps that let people buy groceries, book rides, order dinner delivered, purchase products with “guaranteed two-day delivery,” and so forth, all become simple icons on a screen when the streets have become perilously plastered with snow. As the mob scene that develops in city grocery stores attests – people know that they must stock up themselves, because normal delivery times have been suspended. And even should city officials refrain from banning “non-emergency/vital” vehicles from the roads there is something rather sadistic about looking outside, concluding “it’s too dangerous for me to go out in this” and then deciding to make somebody else go out in that same “too dangerous” weather in order to deliver a pizza (in such conditions the best tip is to just stay inside and let others do the same). Though snow certainly does not see itself as being a retort to the speed to which people have become accustomed, a large enough quanityt of it turns an entire city into a speed bump.
Yet, the ways in which snow can snarl orders and deliveries hardly means that all of technological society comes to a guided halt (remember: pump the brakes!). Though the following prediction may lack rigorous data to fully back it up – it seems quite likely that many people stuck inside due to the impacts of a serious snowstorm passed the time by streaming various content or browsing the web (web-skiing, perhaps). Being snowed in does not necessarily prevent one from posting pictures of oneself being snowed in, checking the status updates of other friends who have been snowed in, or of firing off 140 character commentaries on the delights and despairs of the storm. An unexpected snow day, after all, can be an ideal time to indulge in some binge watching – even as things like e-mail make it far easier for a snow day to simply be a day in which one is expected to work from home. While a snowstorm can be quite disruptive, and can be an inconvenience in many ways – it does not necessarily represent a sabbatical from the digital world.
Of course, comfortably sitting on the couch catching up on movies, television episodes, online shopping, and social media, still depends upon the power remaining on – and a distinct threat that lingers in the background of most serious storms is the possibility that at some point the lights will go dark. When the overhead light goes out – the wireless router often goes out too – and though a person’s smart phone, laptop or tablet may have been fully charged at the start of the storm there is no guarantee that its battery will outlast the power outage. And the moment the power flickers and fades acts as a weather wrought reminder that there are some things – books for instance – that continue to work just fine without a decent wi-fi connection; when the power cuts out there is something reassuring about having some candles kicking around and a hand crank radio.
Winter weather provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the various intersecting pieces of technology upon which our daily affairs are interwoven, the systems on which we rely whether we think about them or not. This does not simply entail the smart phones, computers, and wireless routers that spring swiftly to mind when we hear the term “technology” – rather it points us to the much larger sphere of technological systems and artifacts in which we live. As government officials – particularly in cities – prepare for the worst and declare alterations in public transit people are swiftly reminded of how dependent they are upon subways and busses to get them from one place to another. The lengthy lines in grocery stores demonstrates how reliant we are on the idea that we can just “zip down to the store” or “order on an app” when we need something to eat. When the power goes out it is not just the television that stops functioning but also the refrigerator, the overhead lights, and the outlets we require to keep our many devices charged. And when it finally comes time for us to attempt to emerge into the snowy landscape we search for shovels or snow blowers while potentially strapping on snowshoes or even cross-country skis (though probably not) before we head out to see if the wooly mammoths have returned. While, all throughout the storm, we periodically glance out the window to see if the plows and salt trucks are clearing the roads. We look outside and wonder whether the technologies we rely on for coping with the storm have sufficiently cleared things up for us to be able to go back to relying on the technologies we use for coping with the perils of ordering food and buying knickknacks online.
A snowstorm can be an excellent opportunity for introspection, it provides a rather picturesque thinking exercise for the way in which we have come to rely on large technological systems that can be easily stalled by weather. Eventually the storm passes, the streets get plowed, the sidewalks get salted, public transit resumes, schools and workplaces reopen…things return to normal, and we keep an eye on the weather forecast so we can anticipate when the next disruptive snowstorm will strike. And perhaps on some subconscious level people pine for the possibility of another foot of snow, relishing the enforced slow down which it brings in its wake.
When societal disruptions seem to celebrate speeding up, perhaps there is something to be said for disruptions that force society to slow down.