(It’s the media’s silly season. So instead of telling you about the Net Neutrality paper I’m working on, or wondering about what we can learn from failed community networks, here’s a story from my visit home to Saskatchewan)
My dad doesn’t have broadband. Perhaps this is shocking given what I spend my time researching. But he’s an old-fashioned sort who doesn’t like to change things too fast. His household information nexus is the phone book, which is stuffed into a drawer underneath the phone. The phone book has always been in the same place, since this was where the phone was hanging on the wall when I was a kid, before the telephone company bought back all the rotary phones.
Inside the front cover of the phone book are pasted Post-Its with all the important long-distance numbers and addresses my dad might need, and local numbers that he doesn’t want to take the time to look up. There are also slips of paper that provide extra context for particularly important pieces of information. It’s best not to open the phone book the wrong way otherwise all that context could tumble out.
I thought maybe my dad’s phone book was a very specific information source, and that other people used the Internet as much as I did. But I’d forgotten about the other context – specifically, the context of my home town.
The roof was leaking. I offered to find a contractor. Googling “roofing contractor” and the name of my hometown returned a set of listings sites scraped from . . . the online version of the phone book. No recommendations, no location tags, just phone numbers and addresses in industrial sites out of town.
I went across town to see a friend for morning coffee. I’d used Facebook to schedule lunch with another friend, leaving my dad’s number for her to leave a message. When I called home, she’d organized to meet me a half hour earlier, and hadn’t left a number. I hung up, disappointed to have missed her. The friend whose kitchen I was standing in looked at me like I was crazy. “Why don’t you just look her up in the book?” She walked over and opened the cabinet underneath the phone, and took out the phone book.
My other friend was, of course, listed. And yes, we managed to meet for lunch.
The moral of the story? Our own assumptions about how and why other people use certain kinds of media and information tools can make us blind to what’s really going on.
And no social network update can replace a good lunch with friends.