Contemplating Friday: Portability

Wendy and I took a trip to New York recently. Wendy was going to have to work most days; this column would need to be illustrated, for example. So she would need supplies at our destination, she told me.

“Supplies?” I said warily.

It used to be that trips were arduous journeys across countless miles in slow steamers, uncomfortable wagons, or dirty crowded trains. You didn’t leave for days, you left for months, and you packed large trunks full of every conceivable belonging that might come in handy. I felt like that sort of traveler when Wendy announced she would be working much of our eight day trip. Today’s illustrator doesn’t just use pens and paints and a drawing pad. She also needs a printer, a scanner, a light box, and a computer. I wondered: did they even accept steamer trunks on airplanes? Shouldn’t we lengthen our stay to make it all worthwhile?

But today’s tech items keep getting smaller, even as they ramp up their power. It would have been unthinkable to transport a printer in a suitcase just a few years ago. But the new light box, scanner and printer Wendy bought for the trip were each about the size of her laptop computer. She packed it all into a carry-on bag.

Upon our arrival, the items were lifted out as gingerly as newborn kittens, and inspected. Everything was fine! Nothing broken, nothing cracked. Amazing!

The next morning, Wendy began to lay everything out. I marveled at how easy it had been to set her up with all she needed. We were transporting her studio 3000 miles with little hassle.  Wendy began to arrange her desk with all she needed.

For a long time, Wendy assembled her new, temporary studio. She prodded and poked and fussed and fidgeted each item into place, then stood back, tilted her head, and sighed. More poking and fussing, another scrutinizing gaze, a new sigh. Finally she turned to me.

“This isn’t working,” she said.

Isn’t working? All the right lights were blinking, and each item hummed in its particular way. What was she talking about?

It turned out that our studios may be portable, but our mindsets are not. Wendy was used to her space in San Francisco, and setting up a new one wasn’t just about having the right equipment. The new portability of technology worked in all ways, except psychologically.

We do our jobs on the go all the time now. Our cars allow us to command them to send emails, subways and buses are connected with wireless, and tech items are getting smaller, sturdier, and better all the time. It’s a godsend for those of us who want the freedom to travel, even as work demands our attention. It’s just that, as Wendy and I found out, humans adapt slower than the technology we want. Was there a solution to speed the adaptability process? Some high tech answer I hadn’t thought of?

Later, as evening fell, I walked to a nearby store. I returned and centered a package smack in the middle of Wendy’s new desk area. She looked up from her drawing, bleary-eyed. Then she smiled widely; in front of her was a Bud Light with Lime, the beer she ritually drank in her studio at home as the sun goes down. “I think it’s starting to work,” she said, as she opened a bottle and looked around.

Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Caroline Paul is the author of "East Wind, Rain" and "Fighting Fire," and she co-wrote "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology" with her partner Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton's illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Juxtapoz, and Print Magazine. "Lost Cat" was inspired by the curious disappearances of their beloved Tibia.
Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Tags: Downtime,Gadgets & Devices,Tech Culture