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The Unexpected Benefits Of A Low-Tech Commute

I've refused to engage in cat-and-mouse with those little dots of reception and I have felt an unexpected sense of calm.

13/11/2017 7:54 AM AEDT | Updated 13/11/2017 8:00 AM AEDT
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"Perhaps, when the improved mobile reception finally does arrive, I will not be able to resist the temptation to bury my head in a device. But, I can't help but wonder what I will miss."

One of the big frustrations of an hour-long commute to work is the poor internet reception on the train. Between the regional town where I live and Melbourne, where I work a few days a week, there is only occasional coverage.

The commuter might miraculously pick up enough reception to open their choice of digital newspaper just before Bacchus Marsh, but that is likely to drop off in the time it takes to read a headline or two. So, the commuter is left with the big questions unanswered -- what did go wrong in the auction in 'The Block'? Was Sophie Monk really playing us all in 'The Bachelorette'?

There have been many journeys during which I have chased reception, refreshing the browser again and again, with escalating levels of agitation. Then, five minutes from our arrival, there it is -- a perfect complement of dots lined up in a row... just in time to gather my belongings and disembark.

But, more recently, I have resigned myself to the poor reception on my V/Line commute. I have refused to engage in cat-and-mouse with those little dots of reception and, instead of the frustration of not being able to receive emails, read the news or check social media, I have felt an unexpected sense of calm.

I have looked out the window at the ever-changing landscape, noticing country homesteads, paddocks of sheep surrounded by perfectly weathered fencing, picturesque bushland and hilly countryside.

I have picked up books that I would have put off reading while I checked the news of the day on my iPhone, then been distracted by the next article detailing the top 10 mistakes made by renovators. While I might not know about the latest political storm immediately, and always wonder what renovating disasters I might have avoided, I have not suffered from this temporary absence of access to news. After all, there will always be another home improvement article waiting for me, alongside the latest serving of political outrage.

And while I do not have a utopian vision of commuters chatting animatedly with each other throughout their daily journey -- in fact, I would hate such a thing -- it is nice that they are forced look up once in a while when the connection invariably falters.

We demand free, fast Wi-Fi in our hotels, libraries and cafes and without it, we feel we are somehow being offered less. Less opportunity to work, to connect and to be entertained.

I am aware that the poor reception on trains is a real problem for some, who could use the precious hours of their commute to work, ensuring more time with their families or pursuing their own interests. Improved connectivity would be a change embraced by most -- its advantages of combating boredom and increasing productivity are hard to refute. It would be a shame to waste a whole hour looking out the window, wouldn't it?

Well, perhaps not. I remember my wise and wonderful grandmother giving me a book titled 'A Short History of Progress'. In it, Ronald Wright wrote about the way progress, generally considered to be a positive force, had led to the collapse of civilisations which had blindly continued on a chosen path. Easter Islanders and Mayans were among those who suffered dire consequences of allowing progress to continue, unchecked.

While the comparison between these lost civilisations and the provision of internet connectivity on trains is more than a little melodramatic, the two are not completely at odds.

In his book, Wright uses the term 'progress trap' to refer to innovations that create new problems that society is unable or unwilling to solve, or create conditions that are worse than before the innovation.

In some ways, he could be referring to the all-consuming internet, and the role devices play in ensuring that we have as little opportunity for deep thought and introspection as possible. And certainly, boredom has become a relic of the past due to our almost-constant access to pithy digital conversation with friends and strangers and the highest quality television available at the touch of a button.

Of course, this is not a phenomenon confined to the commuter service, but across so many areas of our lives. We demand free, fast Wi-Fi in our hotels, libraries and cafes and without it, we feel we are somehow being offered less. Less opportunity to work, to connect and to be entertained.

And so, on we march, and in April this year the Andrews Government announced a deal had been struck with a consortium of mobile carriers to construct 35 new mobile towers along Victorian rail corridors by 2018. Unsurprisingly, public transport users applauded the announcement. Everywhere we go, we will be able to log on. Work harder. Stay connected.

And perhaps, when the improved mobile reception finally does arrive, I will not be able to resist the temptation to bury my head in a device for the duration of the commute, busily checking news, emails and the latest panda video. My boss will be pleased with the extra work that I can complete on my way home. I might order the shopping and reconnect with an old school friend on Facebook. But, I can't help but wonder what I will miss on the way.

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