Offline dance

We’ve been told there’s no Internet at the hotel in Kumasi (though an unsubstantiated report says the proprietor is “working on it”). The program manager has earnestly stood by his directive that we should experience the Internet the way Ghanaians do, which is to say (if they do at all) at public cafes.

I see the point. You can’t consult much less design for a culture whose particular constraints you do not understand. OK. But this my biggest concern since, as a team with a job to do involving (at least in my particular task) using the Internet as a route to market, this seems like an unfortunate and avoidable self-limitation.

But so it is. To make matters more challenging, we’re told that power cuts out in Kumasi two to three times a day. Many places have backup generators; many do not. So, you can imagine the near-panic I’m in being a creature of connectivity. I’m not proud of it, just laying it out truthfully.

It’s a reversal of the productivity direction I’ve been working towards for years: a near-total online workflow. Sure, I use desktop apps and love a few dearly. But they’re almost all hooked to networked data and have a web-based interface too. Most simply won’t work without a connection. My laptop is about to become an island.

Thinking through how it will actually work has been interesting, though. There are three scenarios, not counting the pipe dream of guest house Internet:

  1. Connection at place of work, relatively nearby Internet cafe
  2. No connection or very limited connection
  3. Machine failure

The first is the most likely, though it still involves long offline periods. It’s pretty easy really: e-mail gets pulled into and calendar items into iCal whenever I can connect. NetNewsWire can suck down feeds for offline review.

But that leaves Backpack and Basecamp, two online services I use for personal and project task management. There’s a great offline synch app for Backpack called Packrat, but for Basecamp I’m basically hosed. In a stroke of great timing, my files at Google Docs now live offline thanks to the Google Gears integration it now offers. I compose blog posts in the superb MarsEdit so that’s not a worry. I suppose there are some offline Flickr apps, but that seems like such a hassle. IM, Twitter, virtual worlds: forget about it.

The second scenario is basically the same, only more dire. I suspect I will just abandon e-mail altogether and just compose offline blog posts hoping to cast their bottles into the sea at some point.

The last scenario — total computer death — had me considering bringing two laptops … until the sheer idiocy of hauling all that hardware to Africa brought me to my senses. (Some of my teammates are considering not even bringing one. What!?) When you consider that the closest Apple Store is half a continent and a sea away, you basically realize that letting go is easier than fighting it. If the MBP dies, my hipster PDA takes over.

If this particular calamity should come to pass I’ve loaded up a USB key with a bunch of portable apps so that I can at least fake the semblance of a personalized workspace at a public terminal. Loading critical data onto the key just isn’t practical, though, so I’ll basically be all dressed up with no place to go.

And yet. There’s an upside to these scenarios. There are still a few apps that require no connection at all. In fact, the distractions of the ‘tubes are actually a hindrance to using them in some ways. I’m thinking specifically of Ableton Live, but also tools like Tinderbox and Scrivener. All these are for personal composition. I can imagine being hunched monk-like in my room hammering out new tunes and chapters, perversely thankful for the isolation.

That is, if the electricity stays on. There are as yet no affordable (or compact) solar-powered solutions for laptop power. So, I have my three MBP batteries.

Add to all this worry that the iPhone 2.0 update and 3G hardware is released the day after I leave and you may understand better why I am obsessing more about Internet withdrawal than microbe invasion.

If this sounds like spoiled geek whining, you’re probably right. But I think this post will be a useful record to return to when the real conditions of daily work present themselves. I’m pretty sure I’m being shortsighted. Which is probably a good summary of my overall preparedness for this adventure.

Not too long now. Departure Thursday.

One response to “Offline dance”

  1. Darren says :

    It’s going to be interesting to see what adaptations to the way you work you’re forced into through lack of connectivity. It’ll be even more interesting to see if you pick up your old habits when you return.
    I wonder if you’ll become more reliant on gut instincts rather than googling all the options, or if you’ll develop better navigational skills without immediate access to maps and
    GPS? Maybe your story telling will reach a new level once you have to buffer up a whole set of events to relay later, rather than let them drip out as they happen?