The Upgrade Obsession
Making Do With Simple Steps
As late afternoon descends upon our back yard, I patiently try to decipher the local cacophony. Dogs bark and birds chirp. Cars rumble by while sirens echo off nearby buildings. The intermittent beeping of excavation crews in action. We live in a central Austin neighborhood, on a major street, where the daily traffic totals in the thousands of cars. Some hours of the day the four lanes just feet from the front door can can be reduced to a crawl, the nearby stoplights impeding everyone’s swift delivery to home or market.
However, with our home also bordered by an alley, a church, and an unoccupied home office, we benefit from both an urban landing spot as well as an isolated abode. Conveniences abound, with stores and restaurants in close proximity. We walk a lot and not just on the greenbelts and trails. Our feet also plod the asphalt jungle. Many weeks ago, while wandering, I began to spy cryptic colored codes scattered across neighborhood driveways, alleyways, and sidewalks. These terrestrial landmarks signaled an impending infrastructure upgrade. Within a few days the streets were full of teams reading the signs and laying cable. Google Fiber had arrived.
Workers appeared, disappeared, and migrated with ease, their shifts stretching from dawn to dusk. Drillers, trenchers, and tractors clogged the roads, necessitating driving diversions and parking changes. There was a constant din of the cable being stretched, pulled, and rested in the ground. The upgrade of the lean clean digital network was a messy physical act with dirt shifting and dust swirling.
Some of our recent morning walks follow these fresh trenches. It’s possible to map the progress the teams are making, each neighborhood getting an infrastructure face lift. Google Fiber will bring the Internet to us more quickly. For many this is cause to cheer. I recall my own enthusiasm when the Internet first emerged. Just take a look at this early 1990s propaganda piece I wrote, proselytizing networked resources to scientists, staff, and students at a research facility.
The curiosity here isn’t the old-school Mac filling the frame. What is fascinating is that three decades ago the “digital revolution” had already arrived, but in limited distribution. The academic community was using the matrix to uncover scholarly research, share files, and manage services. Gopher, Telnet, and FTP were our buzz words. Soon “websites” would arrive, heading us full throttle towards First World adoption of daily digital connectivity. Leap forward to 2021, mix in a little pandemic blues, and “virtual” everything erupts. With this trajectory, an infrastructure upgrade is always required.
A reliance upon physical infrastructures is fundamental to a society’s growth. A recent visit to the Canyon Creek Trail, in the hills west of town, shone an unexpected light on this reliance. Located on the Balcones Escarpment, the trail initiates in a housing development, at the edge of a modest field, and begins by hugging property lines marked with cheap fencing. After a short stroll, you veer away from the houses and descend the escarpment to eventually sidle along the creek.
Away from the development, the dirt trail presents an escape, yet every fifty yards or so you pass a large steel hole cover marking the sewer line for the homes above. The importance of society’s essential infrastructures was evident even on this “nature” hike. A mile further along, we hit a spot at the creek, full with recent rain runoff, that halted our progress. Unwilling to test our balance on the log beam spanning the water, we spun our aged bodies back and clambered up a short embankment to find a narrow, more isolated path on the limestone ledge. We avoided any further precarious crossings or sewer markers, stopping instead at the dense moss growing on nearby trees, so delicate at first brush, but turning to a slimy paste if under more pressure.
The limestone is exposed at various intervals along the route, the morning’s filtered sunlight drawing out the rock’s subtle complexions. Without the local housing development, this trail would likely not exist and we are blessed to visit on this winter day. Even so, it’s easy to be nostalgic for a world sans these sprawling developments tied to our ‘techconomy’ requiring you to always upgrade, update, and adopt.
My thirty-year work career parallels the wide-spread adoption of digital networks. Even the most romantic job of evaluating, describing, and curating rare books was affected. I appreciate the connectivity and am not an anti-technologist. However, there remains something majestic about the physicality of the world that is absent with our technocratic optimism. How long will Google Fiber last before we have to re-trench an upgrade? In the coming decade will the hefty GFBR concrete boxes implanted in front yards sit empty, suddenly obsolete, waiting for archaeologists to tell the story of our obsessions?
Back home, I’m on the porch scrolling through my digital life while the physical world continues to exert itself. Weird trash blows, floats, and tumbles into the yard, parking itself on a journey to nowhere. There was time when, being on the apparent border of their routes, the City’s trash truck regularly passed us by. An appreciation of garbage service increases when your home is left off the list. The Internet hasn’t replaced trash pickup, sewer lines, or walks in the woods. There are times to log in and times to log off. As certain as the next upgrade notification interrupts my life, I commit to navigating both worlds, finding some solace in the simple act of wandering outside.
I hear ya, James. A few weeks ago, during my daily jog on these same streets, I ended up right smack in the middle of this Googly chaos when I obliviously turned down a street where they were working. I quickly turned to high-tail it outa there when the man holding a stop sign started shouting and waving "come on through, well come on!" He was smiling so exuberantly that I immediately followed his orders! I jogged through a whole block of those ear-drum-bursting pavement pounders without falling into one single hole. As I glanced back over my shoulder, ears ringing, the friendly guy was giving me a thumbs up so I waved back and thought, man, does this guy ever have a great work ethic.
Faced with mounting digital connectivity issues today, I pushed my glowing rectangle aside and drifted out to the backyard to survey my seemingly evergreen container gardens. Winter has been kind so far, this pandemic year.
Giving thanks for the physical, a simple act of watering some drooping pansies was restorative. I get you, my friend.