Friday, November 11, 2011

Loving my Samsung Chromebook -- for all the wrong reasons

Before the summer I was excited by the possibility of getting a Chromebook whilst in the US before coming up to Newfoundland. I was thinking that during the two weeks of perpetual internet access during our teaching sessions I would get a good chance to start finding my way around it. That, however, was not to be. There was the inevitable delay in stock arrival and shipment, etc., and in the end we were up in Newfoundland a good fortnight before delivery. So I got to grips with a new laptop that Michele insisted on getting me "for making the New Year music videos in Mexico and any other media creations I might entertain". And at the end of summer I brought the laptop back to Mexico.

Wherein hangs a take. You can only bring one computer into Mexico when you arrive, unless to want to go through a ton of customs rigmarole and negotiate duty, and so on. I'd travelled up with my netbook, picked up the laptop in New Jersey when I arrived at the start of summer, and by the end of summer I also had a lovely new Samsung Chromebook. (I had bought the Samsung model out of solidarity with them over the White Company successfully suing to have the Samsung Galaxy tablet outlawed from sale in whatever countries think it is appropriate to kowtow to such claptrap.) I took the new laptop back first, since it was a gift, and a lovely one at that. For pragmatic reasons I decided the netbook would come second. That meant I wouldn't be getting to the Chromebook any time soon. And, in fact, I travelled up empty-handed on this trip so that I could bring the machine back to Mexico.

The irony of the sequencing is that I am learning to use a computer that depends on high speed internet access for most of its functionality when I only have access at the library down the road. Even when wireless access is available in the car park outside of library hours (and it does drop out from time to time, especially during weekends, and will only be reset next time the library opens), sitting in the car with the motor running to keep the heater toiling against the chill is hardly conducive to serious computing.

So, the Chromebook is mainly based on Google apps, running on Google's Chrome OS. It has an SD slot to allow you to boost the relatively small hard disk space available on the machine. The main idea is that you do your stuff online and your work mainly resides "on the Cloud" (in Google Docs, or on Google Sites, etc. The machine is light, elegant, boots up in a few seconds, has a good 12 hours plus of battery life, and has a screen and keyboard that are as good as they respectively get. It has a lovely feel and is great to work on.

I knew it would do the things I wanted given web access, but I didn't know what I would do for offline stuff like word processing. A quick search recommended Scratchpad, and that has provided the icing on the cake. The app is lite, but more than adequate for any word processing I do on the run. It opens like an IM pane, but has an icon to click for opening it up as a full screen tab. Once you are there it looks like a stripped back typical word processing package. And it behaves like one. Just key in your content and it saves automatically. A text file just sits on the small hard drive and is accessed by opening Scratchpad and going to the appropriate note title. I did a trial run on Scratchpad and found that a right click allows you to select and copy. You can also save to the local folder, make an automatic sync to google docs, and save to a smart card or external hard drive. I'm writing this post offline in Scratchpad and will copy and paste it into blogger sometime tomorrow; and offline email goes the same way, although there is a handy offline gmail app as well.

The same process worked with responding to students' online work in google docs. I could have sat in the library working in their google docs online, but prefer to use library time for keeping on top of other stuff. So I copied and pasted the students' latest google docs into Scratchpad and brought them back home to read and respond to offline. I usually do this by making my contributions to their evolving written work as obvious as possible, using a coloured font. Scratchpad permits this. Once I got back online again it was a simple-enough matter to create new google docs by copying and pasting into the online app and then sharing with the members of the various student teams (6 teams in the current semester, so 6 google docs. Obviously, you wouldn't want to have to use this process with many more than 6 'student units'. Doing it individually for cohorts of 30-40 students would be unworkable, but with anywhere up to 10 it would be fine.)

I'm fast getting a renewed appreciation of lite computing, in conjunction with lengthy stretches of time offline. A lot of my formerly online writing is now migrating offline, and my sense of how to work around the absence of an always on internet is shaping up. Habits will change, and right now the kinds of change suit me because for quite some time I have wanted to untether myself from the wire for good long stretches of time. I'm hoping that the 5 weeks up here will be enough to consolidate practices of writing "online stuff" offline, and only "going online" for certain periods of time during the day. I'm also hoping that in addition to giving me some "time back" it will start re-shaping my sense of time by opening up some serious space between "events". The past 2 years in particular have been a blur, and I know from recent conversations that I'm far from alone in this perception. My own sense of it is that multitasking with an always on internet obliterates definition and space between events so that everything feels like "now" or, maybe, "five seconds ago".

Paradoxically, perhaps, my Chromebook -- designed to let you do much more much faster on the Web -- might have the effect of encouraging me to spend a lot less time online, because I am learning to use it away from immediate and constant access to the internet. Making this choice, of course, has nothing to do with the kind of machine in question. It's a choice that could equally easily have been made in conjunction with any computing device I have ever owned. It's a matter of personal values and decision-making. But there is something about having found Scratchpad in the context of scarce access to the wire that makes it a little more tempting for me to work more offline and let texts "sit" rather than being fired off immediately. A text can just sit there in Scratchpad waiting until there's an internet connection. For some reason I find that a cute thing to anticipate; something worth waiting for. I think that for me it has something to do with the charm of "workarounds". I always enjoy "making do" ways of doing things, even where there exist elegant off-the-shelf resources. There is something about cobbling together workarounds that makes a process inherently more interesting and engaging to me. At the same time, letting texts sit around in Scratchpad waiting to be fired off at the next car park or library session establishes a distinctive kind of routine in the course of a day. It creates a moment in the rhythm of the day, or the two days, that breaks up time in ways that time is not broken up -- at least for me -- when I am always within a mouse click of doing something online. For me, Scratchpad -- and other apps that I will discover and use -- is part of compartmentalising and, indeed, marginalizing, the wire and the experience of being "online". It is also a means for getting into the practice of writing *less* and being more "choosy" about what and when to write. And when the weather is conducive, it is a way of enabling me to get outside and stay there for good long stretches of time.

I like that.

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