We expect it, even demand it of The Flying Wallendas, the legendary circus act that, having lost its safety net in a luggage snafu just prior to a 1928 performance at Madison Square Gardens, opted to perform without it. They never strung it up again. In 1978, the troupe's 73-year-old founder, Karl Wallenda fell to his death from a wire stretched between the 10 stories high towers of Condado Plaza Hotel, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2011, his great grandson Nik Wallenda, completed the walk accompanied by his mother. I mean these folks make NASCAR, the NFL and pro hockey look like "girlie games." We expect them to work without a net.
On the other hand, I have come to expect one. So imagine my surprise then, when last week I walked into class, fired up the digital projector, hooked up all the various inputs and outlets, hit start and got nothing. Turned out that the wireless network that seamlessly stitches together the 40,000 some faculty, staff and students that comprise this technology rich, research-1 university had stepped out for a latte. Well, that wasn't the reason given over on SYSNEWS, the website that tells us what is happening with all things tech on campus. Their message was:
"Although the wireless system appears to stabilized, ComTech engineers will continue to troubleshoot the wireless issues on campus to determine root cause of these issues. We appreciate your patience as we work towards a resolution to these ongoing problems."
It hadn't "stabilized" and we went quietly nuts. We had grown accustomed to our net. Sure, many of us still have a computer wired to the wall in our offices, but it is sort of like the telephone on the desk. It's there, but how often do you use it? Far more often we tote our laptop or our tablet into the classroom, plug into the projector and wing our way wirelessly into our lectures and discussions. I can't remember the last faculty meeting when there weren't as many mobile devices around the table as warm bodies. We were wireless, and then we weren't. So we scurried madly finding "workarounds" shifting courses and lectures onto thumb drives, reacquainting themselves with those big clunky things that were tethered to the wall with ethernet cables, and running across the street to coffee shops to check email.
Well, the system did eventually stabilize, but not for several days, and with little or no explanation. It was very much a "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain … I am the great and powerful Wizard of Oz!" kind of experience.
It all reminded me of Grandfather Schrag and the horses. You see, my Grandfather Schrag was a Mennonite minister who farmed and preached out on the wide prairies of Southeastern South Dakota just as the 19th century was turning into the 20th. There was a thriving Mennonite community in the area, but Granddad's immediate neighbors were Catholics and Protestants of varying stripes — perhaps a Lutheran or two. In short, there were more than a few folk who were "nicht von unsere" — not one of ours. You see, our family was Mennonite — not Amish. No beards, no bonnets, — buttons and zippers were fine, modern folk in may ways. But Granddaddy was the minister and a bit of a theological conservative. "Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow," in his mind, eliminated a lot of "new fancy clap-trap." So while the neighbors were un-crating the noisy John Deeres, my father and his brothers were still hitching their horses to the four-bottom plow and heading out to turn the sod the old-fashioned way.
It seemed terribly unfair, until the "chug, chug, chug" of the John Deere went "chug, chug, chug … clunk." And stopped. You see this was before any self-respecting farmer could fix any machine on the place with a pair of pliers and some bailing wire – heck it was even before bailing wire. But the neighbors had bought the idea of the mechanized farm. Sold off the horses and brought in the tractors — not realizing that they were working without a net. Much of farming is time dependent, time and weather. When there is rain coming in and hay is lying cut in the field — you can't wait for the John Deere guy to come out and fix the tractor. You bail right now or you lose the hay. It was times like that when the horses seemed a real good bet.
Sure, time moved on, and as I said, pretty soon my cousins could jury-rig any piece of machinery on the place. But there was that span of "in-between" time when the tractor-types were working without a net. When they had trusted their livelihood to a technology that had no support system, and a potential for disaster from which they had no real recourse.
As I repeatedly stood before my classes last week scrambling for ways to make "the normal" work, 50 or 60 faces peering curiously at my machinations, I wondered if we hadn't made some of those same errors in our current love affair with all things mobile and wireless. I switched madly from keyboard to keyboard, browser to browser, application to application. And all the while the rain was coming in, there was hay lying in the field, and the damn tractor wouldn't start.