Nothing gets a privileged train rider—or really any expectant Internet user—more riled than lack of a connection. Today, we hear about the poor, wireless-deprived Amtrak riders who can't access the train's supposed free WiFi, from The New YorkTimes' Ron Nixon. These wretched of the earth, like many of the disconnected and dispossessed, are so very angry -- so angry, in fact, they are tweeting about it using their 3G connected iPhones. In other words, using their own data connections when they should be on free Wi-Fi!
We had heard of Amtrak plight when an Acela rider popped up in our Twitter streams every so often. But the full volume of these "silent, hash tagged screams" really come through in Nixon's telling of the situation. Many, many commuters, we learn, are fed up with the hours-long rides up and down the Northeast Corridor without the Internet Amtrak had promised. One rider, Robert Treat, describes his wireless-less travel as "Death by a thousand cuts." Yes, this is really that bad. No, not that Amtrak is failing to provide a service it had promised its riders, which they have deemed necessary for survival. Rather, that we have gotten so accustomed to free Wi-Fi, all the time, everywhere, lack of this service—especially when promised—turns some people into very cranky beasts who talk (or, rather, tweet) as if they haven't eaten in weeks, on the verge of death.
It is the following sympathetic tale from Nixon that leads Treat to describe the situation as literal, death-inducing torture:
It was a Thursday morning, and Robert Treat, the chief technology officer for an Internet company, was looking forward to some uninterrupted time to get work done on the train from Baltimore to New York. Leaning back, hot cocoa at the ready, he logged on, scrolled through a few e-mails and then ... no more Internet. He logged on again, managed to connect for a few minutes, and soon enough: nothing
Sure, this is a tiny bit annoying. Amtrak said it would be there and it's not. Sometimes even the little wireless bars show up, but the gods of connectivity just won't give forth their bounty. Irritating, yes. But, is it akin to repeated knife cuts? (We're not answering that.)
Treat, of course, isn't the only Amtrak user who gets so very angry at his Internet connection. "Couldn’t get enough signal on my laptop to complain how bad the Wi-Fi is on my train," tweeted @MattSullivan101. Sullivan, of course, has access to some of the big wide Internet, as he could still tweet. But still: Anger. Another turned her annoyance into mockery. "It’s like dial-up pretending to be Wi-Fi," Carrie Strine, an artist in New York, who frequently rides the train to Lancaster, Pa, told Nixon. "You almost expect to hear that sound that AOL used to make when you logged in." (Burn!) And CNBC's Tony Fratto, just puts it blunty, saying "The Wi-Fi is so bad as to be more of a nuisance than a help."
There isn't something particularly hateful about Amtrak, per se. This is more about a promise of Internet forgone. We see this seething anger all of the place. How often is it that we yell, with actual out loud voices, at our computers to work faster? Or, when our magic phones don't do their magic fast enough we sigh at them, hoping our hot screechy breath will make the Internet go faster. Or, to out myself, just yesterday, sitting in the Boston Logan airport the "Free Wi-Fi" beckoned me to open up my laptop and do nothing at all important on the Internet. I had plans of G-chatting. Really. But, even though the bars showed up it did not work. I admit, I was upset, even vengeful.
This, of course, is a fake problem. Internet is a privilege -- even in this here United States, where Broadband doesn't reach all communities. Plus, many Americans have smartphones anyway, where they can do a lot of Internetting. And really who needs Internet. Yes, one may need it to do their job to its fullest. But a few hours offline will not kill you, certainly not by "a thousand cuts."
But, Louis C.K. said it better than we ever could in this classic sketch about the inexplicable expectations we put on technology. "Is the speed of light too slow for you?" he asks. It is, isn't it: