Elgan: Independence Day (from the grid, that is)

My town is on fire and the power is out. So why am I still working?

I was wrapping up my weekly column this evening, when suddenly the power went out. I had bought a nice uninterruptible power supply for my desktop PC recently, but I hadn't gotten around to plugging it in, so my system just went dark and the fan was silenced in an instant.

Out of my office window, I can see a fluorescent-orange sun setting in a smoky haze. Just outside the city to the west, some 2,400 acres of dry forest are on fire, with some flames reaching 100 feet high. Somehow smoke from what they're calling the "Gap Fire" shut down power lines coming into three cities, including mine. It could be a long blackout, and I have a deadline.

I live in a flammable Southern California town called Santa Barbara. Every decade or so, a combination of drought, heat and wind create conditions of extreme combustibility. And when the fires start, they flare up in multiple unpredictable locations. The flames can spread faster than a human can run, and can even leap the six-lane U.S. 101 freeway. Even in neighborhoods like mine that are safe from actual fire (for now), it's a bad idea just to go outside. Breathing the air is like smoking unfiltered cigarettes.

Did I mention that I have a deadline?

Fortunately, I'm not worried about it. Despite the fact that just about every business in the city has closed down, my little business here is still up and running. I have everything I need to write, surf the Web, connect to e-mail and do it all from my candle-lit home or, if need be, somewhere else.

Call it emergency preparedness. But the truth is that I'm set up to work as a "digital nomad" or "extreme telecommuter." And being able to connect and work when there's no electricity, when my router and modem are dark and when I may need to evacuate at some point is yet another benefit of this extreme brand of mobile computing.

Earlier this year, I traveled for two weeks in Mexico and Central America, and more recently for two months in Greece. To prepare for these trips, I made sure my main laptop could go as long as nine hours. (A secondary laptop gets another three.) My BlackBerry Pearl and AT&T data plan enable me to use my phone as a modem for Internet access. The software is set up and ready to go on my laptop, and the USB cable is handy enough to find in the dark. My Amazon Kindle is charged, fortunately, so I can save power on the laptop and do slow Web research using its mobile broadband connection. Skype and a webcam are set up on my laptop, so I'm ready to make calls. My GPS is charged in case I have to evacuate and take unfamiliar roads to get somewhere.

It occurred to me (as I was seeing my neighbors debilitated by the blackout) that the act of preparing to connect and communicate from anywhere is really a kind of "declaration of independence," at least temporary independence, from reliance on power coming into my home and the information appliances (PC, TV and so on) it enables.

Even when there's no power failure, and even when not traveling, the existence of ready-to-go mobile computing gear gives you freedom. Sometimes it's great to get out of your home or office, and just go somewhere new, and still be able to get some work done.

And speaking of independence, I've always wondered why so many people feel burdened by connectivity. You see this anxiety come up in discussions about the new availability of Wi-Fi connectivity on commercial flights. A common complaint goes something like this: "Oh, great, our last oasis is being taken away. I'm going to miss not being able to connect for five hours on cross-country flights."

The reason I wonder about this is that cell phones and laptops put all the control in your hands. With a cell phone, for example, you can turn it on, turn it off, make it ring silently, set it to phone only (if you won't want text messages, e-mail and calendar reminders bugging you) and screen calls with Caller ID.

I use Gmail nowadays and set it up with filters that forward important mail to my BlackBerry, which, of course, rings when it arrives. My BlackBerry calendar application syncs with Google Calendar. If I think of something I have to do while I'm wandering around town or eating at a restaurant, I can just do it if it's a minor thing, or put it on my calendar or to-do list using voice commands.

If my phone doesn't ring, I don't have to worry about anything. If something is on my mind, I can take care of it or make a note of it.

This "hyperconnectivity" lifts, rather than creates or burdens. Gadgets with antennas and batteries provide independence from devices that don't function unless they're plugged into a wall outlet -- not to mention independence from walls in general.

Besides, you never know when a disaster will strike. If it's not fires, it could be earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms, floods or just power outages that strike for reasons unrelated to disasters.

So regardless of whether you're a digital nomad or a business traveler, whether you live in a disaster-prone area or not, why not make your own declaration of independence and set yourself up with the right phone, software, data plan, long battery-life laptops and other devices so you're ready at any time to do whatever you want do to, and go wherever you want to go.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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