Welcome to the Matrix

The 21st century is taking some getting used to. It seems to me both familiar and strange. In some ways, it is more fantastic than my wildest fantasies growing up in the 1960s. True, we do not have men on Mars. Nor are there giant space stations in earth orbit serenely rotating to the tune of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube.

Still, it is an amazing new world that I inhabit. We’ve come a long way baby. I grew up in an age when the space program was just starting. The ordinary life I knew growing up was incredibly low tech. Only governments, banks and very rich companies could afford computers and they were housed in their own buildings. A typewriter was something of a luxury; most of us wrote out our letters by hand. Most office systems consisted of a typewriter, carbon paper and a card file. Air travel was largely only for the rich. I was 23 years old before I took my first commercial airline flight. The idea of a personal computer was ludicrous. Most of us drove cars with manual transmissions. Lacking power brakes, we had to push down hard on the pedals to stop the car. We owned cars that many of us could repair ourselves.

I am not sure when my world changed. Nevertheless, this new world I inhabit still seems surreal. The feeling comes back whenever I take a business trip. This week it was two nights and three days on the north side of Atlanta. It was a high tech experience all the way. It started when I inserted my electronic key into my hybrid and drove it to the long-term parking lot at Washington Dulles International Airport. A bus picked me up and took me to the terminal, but automated announcements kept me company the whole way. The driver did not have to say a thing.

Once inside the terminal there was no need to interact with a ticket agent. Like all the airlines now, I simply inserted a credit card into my airline’s electronic agent machine. Within thirty seconds, I had a boarding pass in my hand. Getting through the security screening was the most labor-intensive part of my airport experience. Even so high tech machines sniffed and examined my carry on luggage. Many moving walkways and frequent escalators carried me quickly to Concourse B. At the gate a solid-state monitor, supplemented with many recordings, provided basic flight information and informed me of the weather at my destination.

Inside the airport, it seemed that everyone is talking to themselves. No, I was not looking at them carefully enough. They are yakking into their cell phones, informing their significant or insignificant others about every minute aspect of their journey. CNN blared above my head. Within easy walking distance were restrooms with automated toilets. A nearby Starbucks was ready to provide a quick caffeine jolt.

At least the MD-80 I was on is an older aircraft. The flight attendants were forced to do their safety briefings the old-fashioned way. However, many passengers were tuned into their MP3 players or wholly zoned out. The more adventurous on this ninety-minute flight booted up their laptop computers once we hit 10,000 feet and kept working. Time is precious in the 21st century. It must be filled with something. Only the old fashioned like myself take time to look out the window. For most, a jet is merely a quick way to get between two distant points, not a journey to be savored.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a lot like Washington Dulles, just much bigger and feeling its age. More escalators and moving sidewalks whisked me where I needed to go. At least this airport has the now nearly compulsory automated subway linking concourses to the main terminal. Washington Dulles will not have it for a few more years.

At the Alamo car rental, of course my reservation is already in the computer. I was told to take my pick of any of the compact cars. I picked a bright red one on the assumption it would be easier to find. I handed my rental contract to the gate agent who scanned it. Within seconds, I am on the open road. Forty-five minutes later, I am at a Homewood Suites near the Cobb Galleria Centre. It is here that I encounter the only electronic hiccup of the day. While I am in their reservation system, the system cannot seem to assign me a room. The application, written in Visual Basic (I can tell from the error message) repeatedly bombs. Some old fashioned human ingenuity is called for. The clerk unassigns someone else’s reservation so I can select theirs. The electronic room key is quickly encoded. Within minutes, I am relaxing in my second floor suite.

How suite it is. It was hardly a year ago that I was bemoaning the lack of high-speed internet in hotel rooms. Now it is pervasive. This hotel has the now standard high-speed internet service. In a minute, I am online, reading my email and surfing my favorite web sites. I may be five hundred miles away from home but with my government furnished laptop computer, it is as if I have never left. My virtual office and me. My suite and me. For suite living is the way to go. Moreover, this is the first suite I have stayed in that actually felt like an apartment. Even sweeter, it is a quiet room. While next to the Cobb Parkway, I do not hear road noise at all. This hotel is below the road surface and behind a berm. The comfy bed and lack of noise is itself a bit surreal, but allows me to get a deep sleep I can rarely get at home.

I have wheels but I do not need them that much. I am a couple hundred feet from a Schlotzsky’s Deli. Cobb County may be in the intellectual dark ages when it comes to teaching evolution, but everything else is high tech. Gleaming office buildings, hotels and convenient retail abound. There is a movie theater across the street (I took in Syriana while I was there.) A mall up the street made a convenient place to buy some Christmas presents. However, mostly I prefer my cozy room. It comes with a fireplace, but no wood. (Do they expect guests to bring their own firewood and matches?) It has a stove, refrigerator and dishwasher but no food. (I used one glass and found the next day that the maid ran the dishwasher to clean it.) Generally, I do not like to travel alone. Yet if I must this is the way to do it: a nice quiet and comfortable suite with a fireplace I cannot use, two TVs and a convenient high-speed internet connection to distract me.

The Cobb Galleria Centre is a half mile up the road and the destination of my trip. It is beautiful, immaculately clean, quiet and plushly carpeted. In other words, it is like every other convention center in which I have ever been. It is the sort of place that had I stumbled upon it in the 1960s would have been breathtaking even without its many high tech features. Aside from the self-flushing toilets and urinals, each conference room has its own electronic board informing attendees about the current and future seminars in the room.

I am here to talk about the groundwater data in the system that I manage. I attend a committee meeting. In the afternoon I do an hour-long demonstration of the system I manage to passers by out by the registration area. The following day I give a half hour speech that is well received, then listened to more than three hours of similar speeches by others. At the conclusion of my business, I do it all in reverse, arriving back in Washington Dulles three quarters of an hour late. My flight left a rainy Atlanta shortly before sunset. I was treated to a surreal but stunning picture of a fingernail sun on the horizon dancing off the top of an endless carpet of dark stratus clouds. It was all just for me. For none of the other passengers seem to care. The guy next to me was methodically thumbing his Blackberry.

Although all this technology is so convenient and ubiquitous, the only real part for me is looking out the window and marveling at our complex planet from a height that would have astounded humans only a hundred years earlier. The rest of the journey feels surreal and artificial. I ache for something that feels more concrete. That is why business trips like the one I took last month to Helena, Montana turn out to be so much more fun. Arriving a day early to spend a day hiking mountains makes me appreciate the hotel’s Jacuzzi and the end of the day. Clean mountain air beats the persistent press of cars and humans. For all its glitter, a dazzling convention center is no substitute for a mountain, raw and exposed to the elements, and a path to take me to its summit.

Although I make my living in the world of technology, I know the time will come when I will have had my fill of it. I will not give it up altogether. I will doubtless keep a computer and high-speed internet connection. Nevertheless, I do hope that retirement finds me somewhere far from the omnipresent press of gadgetry and civilization that is this newer, more crowded 21st Century. I will want a place with a view of a moose outside my window instead of a Hooters. If I miss a café latte, I will buy a machine. If a Barnes & Noble is not around the corner, I will order my books online. Someday again, nature will be around the corner instead of hours away. Someday I shall buy peace and nature.

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