Monday, October 21, 2013

When the Lights Go Out -Undergraduate Reactions to Internet Outage

This month the Internet went dark on one small liberal arts school for less than 24 hours, in fact it went down for less than 12.  You would think by student's reactions that things were really getting bad out there, you know; anarchy, zombies, and killer viruses. However, the power was still on, water ran through the pipes, and the sun set that evening and rose the next day- the internet came back to life several hours later.

Nevertheless, the students muttered and looked at their phones quizzically- trying to circumvent the stoppage in service and send off that important text or email.  Some found others who had Sprint- rumored to still work, while other networks were dark.

I happened to be on the reference desk in the library for the first 3-4 hours of the outage.  What happened was that a truck (or large vehicle) hit a main artery of Time Warner or whichever carrier that ultimately took down the entire town, wireless networks like AT&T, and the entire campus Internet and TV cable for a period of 7 to 8 hours.

The interruption did have an affect on my day as well, as I received an abnormal amount of reference questions from students who were probably in the mood to do homework (that did not involve the internet, plainly there was little else to do with the interwebs dark for undergrads).  E-mail still worked however, like some kind of cruel joke- the meat of the digital world was gone, but those brussel sprouts were still there in the form of E-mail.

Of course, we do not maintain a card catalog anymore, as I had to explain to an adjunct professor who was planning to show something to his class from his laptop and now was searching frantically for a DVD (he would also settle for a VHS tape).  Our DVD collection is in a small closet and is small enough to browse.

Library of Congress ranges and guides at the end of stacks serve as roadsigns and can give you a lot of hints of where books are located, but it is nothing like an even deprecated OPAC like Voyager's Integrated Library System (that was now remotely hosted across the nation and offline and totally inaccessible).  There is a Library of Congress finding aid in print somewhere, but fortunately our library is pretty small and easy to browse once in the right neighborhood.

I managed to get through my reference shift alright, but not feeling as though I was as prepared as I ought to be.  I even had a student ask for recommendations of authors for pleasure reading, which happens rarely.  Normally I would have a list ready in my head, but the outage seemed to wipe out my superhighways as well.  In fact, a couple of times during the shift, students or I would murmur, "I usually just Google those types of things, but know, it's down etc."  We spoke of the Internet like it left our world like a friend who prematurely died and a huge void was there- but not.

After a faculty meeting I walked with a Communications professor back towards our offices and we talked about the outage and how it affected the students so much for those few hours.  She said she had face to face conversations during the outage and was fine, if not refreshed. I said I had read a book between reference questions, a book on dog breeds in fact- that predicted that French Bulldogs would not be popular in the future (copyright in the 80's).

The authors wrote something about how the French Bulldog was too specialized for the masses and only for a narrow profile of dog fanciers. I thought about how wrong they were in those pre-Internet days.  No they were right then, but had no idea that the few French Bulldog fanciers would then be able to connect, share, gain followers, and then "Likes" on Facebook via the Internet.  Then maybe an artist or actor- no a reality star would want a dog that nobody had, but then everyone would have one.  The Internet literally has made everything not only popular but available and accessible.  The long tail of the Internet would satisfy all and it would get longer and longer.

We fared better than our students, clearly.  Of course, we both have lived lives without the Internet, and while it is not easy living without it, we can revert back fairly easily.  Some of us even try to get away from the internet and devices on our off time.  As far as the Millennials and those too young to remember  life without a digital information go, it is as if a part of their life is gone when the lights go out.

I say we have an Internet free day every month...OK, I take it back... every year. 

*Information contained within these pages do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of Schreiner University.

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