Of wifi, Hiptops, and blackouts

I was in Philadelphia today on a journalism assignment, and it was a typical digital moment: I was simultaneously talking to my girlfriend Emily, who was in New York, on the phone, and instant-messaging with a few friends on my Danger Hiptop. In the middle of a sentence, her phone went dead. Then, a minute later, all the New-York-based people on my instant-messaging buddy list went offline.

The moment was a creepy echo of 9/11 — everyone in New York suddenly vanishing. Thankfully, my non-New-York friends were still online, so I quickly IMed with them and found out what was happening; they were getting the news off CNN.com. I began to realize I was probably stranded in Philly, because Amtrak was also shut down. But I wanted to know more, and surfing via the Hiptop isn’t great when you’re in a big rush. So I got my IM friend to do a quick hunt for hotels with wifi, figuring I’d check into one.

As it turns out, I walked by Rittenhouse Square — a downtown Philly park — and figured it might have some free wifi nearby. Bingo: No sooner than I turned my laptop on than I had about four different strong signals. None had WEP turned on, but all had customized access-point names, which suggests they were left open intentionally for others to share. Once online, I got filled in on all my travel options (bleak, of course) and booked a nearby hotel. When I got to the hotel, I found it had ethernet, but the drivers for my ethernet card were busted. No problem: I wandered down to the park and quickly downloaded the 2.5-meg driver database, thanks to the fine philanthropic wifi sharers of Philadelphia. Then I headed back to my hotel room, where I am right now.

A nice day to illustrate a few of my favorite memes-du-jour: The wonderful crisis-value of portable Hiptop-style phones, and of open community wifi.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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