If there's one phrase I associate with the future, it's control panels. You know, the gleaming, custom built set of controls that provide a direct interface to the advanced machines that we use in our every day lives, here in the futuristic world of the 21st century.
But a funny thing happened along the way to that vision: we invented general-purpose computers, some small enough to fit in your hand, and made them cheap enough that most people could buy one or three. And those mundane consumer devices began to show up in the most extreme places -- and in some cases, to complement or even displace the equipment that was already there.
With the International Space Station, the human race has finally built a long-lived, honest-to-goodness spaceship -- even if it never gets more than a few hundred miles from the earth's surface. The word "spaceship," of course, evokes images of gleaming banks of computers built into the ship's bulkheads, ready to control its various systems. It doesn't exactly summon up the image of an ordinary laptop, of the sort that would be used by a typical white-collar worker on Earth, being used for crucial tasks. But that's exactly what astronauts use, with IBM ThinkPads playing important roles on the station.
Those ThinkPads had to be rigorously certified to work with the Space Station, of course; you can't just plug any Windows laptop into the ISS's systems willy-nilly. That doesn't mean that astronauts have to be completely separated from their beloved gadgets, though: a recent unmanned resupply mission brought iPads up to play with, though don't expect the station's robotic arm to be controlled by an iOS app any time soon.
People setting out to sea in the Navy are not going to be as isolated as astronauts, but they'll still be away from their families, friends, and the omnipresent entertainment/information networks civilians take for granted for months at a time. Many people enlisting today -- especially young adults who've spent their whole lives online -- are naturally anxious about separation from their gadgets, which led to some interesting questions for Yahoo! Answers on the subject. The consensus: both the U.S. Navy and the U.K.'s Royal Navy will allow you to bring your laptop, iPod, and other gadgets with you when you ship out -- but you won't be able to connect to the Internet.
A 2009 incident might have given some pause about the wisdom of this policy: the USS Hartford collided with the USS New Orleans in the Straight of Hormuz, and an investigation revealed that, among other lapses, the Hartford's navigator was jamming to his tunes on his iPod at the time. But since the same could have happened with a Walkman or vintage-era transistor radio, perhaps we shouldn't lay the blame entirely at the feet of high tech.
Most Americans, when thinking about soldiers' letters home, probably think of wars from the past: the letters our parents or grandparents sent from Europe or the Pacific during World War II, for instance, or the ones you hear read dramatically aloud in documentaries about the Civil War. Because of their vintage, it seems rather quaint, but when you think about it, the ability to communicate with a soldier in a far-off war was really quite an impressive feat, of logistics if not engineering. In more bygone days, a soldier would leave for a war and not be heard from for years, with his fate perhaps unknown to the people back home.
More than anything else, what's made that sort of letter-writing seem quaint in America's current conflicts is Skype. The now Microsoft-owned company first got traction in allowing cheap international calls, and since the U.S. has many networked computers in war zones, soldiers can communicate back with friends and family back home easily; it's actually cheaper to Skype from Afghanistan than it is to make an ordinary phone call from Germany. The service has provided any number of dramatic connections.
When Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a secretive raid in 2011, the Obama Administration released a picture of the President and his top aides, watching the action unfold from the White House Situation Room. While there were plenty of instant analysis pieces that told us what the picture meant about politics, race, and gender in the 21st century, the eyes of many techies were drawn to the table in the middle of the picture, and the seemingly ordinary laptops sitting on it. Never mind that mysterious pixelated document sitting in front of Hillary Clinton; what's the make and model of the laptop it's resting on? It appears that they're specially built Hewlett-Packard machines, probably delivered as part of a contract HP has with the military. Not entirely off the shelf, but not an elaborate piece of custom hardware either.
But of course the real story is that they're there at all. One imagines the Situation Room to have walls covered with huge monitors controlled by futuristic Minority Report-style UIs. (The huge monitor part is true, anyway.) But the truth is that the White House for much of the last 20 years has been behind the times when it came to personal technology. Bill Clinton famously only sent two emails the entire time he was in office (though he did order a Christmas ham online once). George W. Bush also wasn't much for email, giving up his AOL address when he came into office. In pictures of the Situation Room on the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, there are no laptops in sight. The tech-savvy Obama crowd has made some changes, though Obama himself doesn't seem to have a laptop.
We've been talking a lot about various oddly placed tech items in this article, but if you work in IT, you're probably thinking one thing: who's responsible for maintaining this stuff? Well, it's probably someone a lot like you, who just happens to have an office that's someplace a little cooler than yours.
A few years back, a user going by the name of Mradyfist took to the SomethingAwful forms and answered questions about his job at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. This is his description of a typical workday:
I'm the Sr. Computer Tech, which basically means I'm the hands-on repair guy for all the workstations (and sometimes personal laptops). Usual system is that someone would call our office and tell the help desk guy that Outlook is running slow (because Outlook is always running slow) or that their computer just wouldn't turn on this morning (because power supplies are constantly failing), he'd spin his chair around and kick the back of mine, and tell me to head down to the VMF (Vehicle Maintenance Facility) or an A3 cubicle, or the A1 offices, and I'd run down there and check up on it. So mostly workstations, an even mix of hardware and software; sometimes if it was a slow day and we weren't getting a lot of calls, help desk would just go handle something himself.
On top of that I'm also the guy who checks every laptop that comes into the station which hasn't been screened already by RPSC IT somewhere before arriving at Pole. Nothing too exciting, I just make sure that they've got the latest OS patches, they have some type of AV software with recent definitions (yes, even OS X and Linux), and then if they're staying out in the Summer Camp area I set up our super-secure corporate Wi-Fi network (so that nobody can fly down to the pole and steal our wifi).
There you have it: Even at the South Pole, Outlook always runs slow! Not sure if that makes your job seems more exciting or makes you believe that there's no real adventure in the world.