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COLUMN

Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

Akshay Patil

Somehow, I remember my lack of a computer during last year’s rush as being not so bad. It was probably because I spent the entire time running around that I failed to miss the fact that the connection between me and the rest of the world had been severed. There weren’t many times where I truly felt the need to venture out of the rush frenzy to an Athena cluster for the purpose of checking my mail. I was fine.

I guess it’s because I have more downtime now that my lack of a computer seems frustrating. I want my media files, I want all the nit-picky preferences I had on my computer, I want the freedom to install whatever I want and delete whatever I don’t. It’s sad.

“Do you have a CD burner?” someone will ask.

“Yes,” I calmly answer.

“Could I use it?”

“No.”

A look of confusion. “Er, why not?”

“Because my computer’s not here, I left it at a friend’s house for the summer, and she flew off to England with her family right before I came back.”

“Oh.” They look at their feet, trying to summon up the words to convey their pity for me in my situation. “That sucks.”

“Yeah.”

People tend to sympathize with you here at MIT. Sometimes they’ll talk about a period of time in which they too went without a computer so that you won’t feel alone. When someone’s computer dies, we all have a pained expression on our face and offer our sympathy to the poor individual.

We ask if there’s anything we can do to help -- any files they might need, programs that they may want hacked. Not that we have any work, or pressing needs that would actually require a computer, but just because we’re that nerdy.

We have computer clusters so that you can check your e-mail anywhere on campus. The telephone in my room serves little purpose beyond calling my parents and ordering food delivery because everyone else I would ever want to contact is just a few clicks and keystrokes away. As sad as it sounds, I’ve used instant messaging on a regular basis to communicate with people less than 10 feet away from me. A computer is the tool that MIT students use to communicate with the world outside MIT (and often the world inside of MIT as well).

Freshmen have yet to experience the way the world changes when MIT’s network goes down. All of a sudden, everyone emerges from their rooms with quizzical expressions on their faces, asking each other if their connection still works.

“Hey, is your Internet down too?”

“I don’t think so... Oh no, wait, that page was just cached. Yeah, my connection’s down.”

“Ok, so it’s not just my drop.”

“I guess not.”

Silence.

“Is it back up yet?”

Click, pause. “Nope.”

Silence.

“How about now?”

Some will just sit there; hitting web.mit.edu, waiting for that time when the site will load again and their wired life can resume. People never look as lost or helpless, en masse, as when the connection goes down. Campus becomes something out of a horror movie: “Night of the Undead Nerds.” That is, of course, until somebody happily exclaims “It’s back up again!” at which moment everyone scurries to the closest computer to check what e-mails and information they missed during the dark period of their life.

It’s a sad existence, but it’s ours. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Just wait till all class materials are available online.