Axim for Trouble

by Matt Soriano | 4/22/03 5:00am

Since I just got into grad school, I thought I'd reward myself by getting a Dell Axim handheld PC. I can't wait for it to arrive. It's basically a Palm Pilot on steroids, but no Palm Pilot can give me a 400 mHz processor, CompactFlash and Secure Digital expansion slots, a 3.5 inch screen, and a speaker system that fits in my shirt pocket. Plus you can add an 802.11b card so that your Axim can connect to any wireless network.

Wow. I can add the Axim to my Kodak digital camera that has 3.3 megapixels of resolution and 2X optical zoom. The good thing is that they share CompactFlash cards, so I can take a digital picture and use the Axim to e-mail the picture to Mom straightaway. If Hanover supported GSM wireless phones, I could use Bluetooth to link the Axim to the T68i mobile phone and send an e-mail even if I was away from Dartmouth's network. Damn Hanover for being in mobile phone hell!

I admit it. I'm a nerd. I could care less about the style of the clothes that I wear. I've structured my wardrobe so I can reach randomly into the closet and look uniformly slovenly each day. I forgot that last Sunday was Easter Sunday, and my main interest in the Gulf War was in the Circular Error Potential of the GPS-guided Joint Standoff Weapon. On the other hand, my mouth waters Pavlovian drool at the altar to the Gods of Smaller, Faster, Shiny and Wireless.

The religion of Technology is a wonderful thing, but not for the reasons that are cited by its adherents. Most of the early adopters of technology are driven by something other than utility. Could you imagine anyone adopting new technology simply because it adds utility? Heaven forbid it! What sane person would have laid down beside Orville Wright on the Wright Flyer and shifted his weight in tandem in order to fly a mile along the North Carolina coast in a canvas machine? What cost-focused executive could make a business case for a $6,000 machine "Personal Computer" that forces users to squint into a tiny green screen, enter arcane commands, and get reams and reams of arcane output as his tangible reward? Why would I get the Axim when a leather-bound notebook would do the same and not break if it fell off its pouch on my belt?

One answer is that technology gives us tremendous power of knowledge. Nerds like us have command over the incomprehensible. Whether it's writing HTML or installing a network, the technologically sophisticated members of our society ride above the chaos of confusing acronyms to establish order and virus protection. What we do is indistinguishable from magic, and to the general population, each one of us spouting the mantra of Bluetooth and W3C and Linux sounds just like Bill Gates. One of us could be the next Bill Gates, or we could crash the network and nobody could print papers for a week. Regardless, it's best to be on our good side.

Indeed, the hard numbers and concrete functions that characterize the interactions of Axims and mobile phones allow us to establish the tone of relationships in our own circles. There's a pecking order among geeks. It's separated along the lines of Mac OS and Windows and ranked by the amount of RAM, processor speed, size of monitor and frames-per-second of the video card, and woe to the person who doesn't keep his firmware updated. And there's a crushing shame attached to being the poor member who fails to lead the technological trends.

All of this is eminently logical from the nerd's point of view. What kind of a person is this deviant who fails to upgrade his OS to version x.1? How can he live knowing that his hard drive uses FAT32 instead of NT File System? True nerds don't consider their costs and benefits before switching from dial-up to broadband. They consider two numbers and two numbers only: 56k versus 11 mbps. And they find a way to make it work. And then they add a wireless router and slap the 128-bit encryption on to keep the FBI from tapping into his Everquest games. Nobody participates in the revolution by following a trend.

It's hard to sense the revolution at work when your BlitzMail doesn't work and your computer won't go for a day without giving you the Blue Screen of Death. But at least we have Blue Screens. A rational mind might not have gone farther than the old green and amber terminals connected to one big mainframe. Nerds, on the other hand, wanted more colors and more power for each user. Such was born the personal computer. As such the selfless nerds of the twentieth century have given us moon landings, the Internet, and Gore-Tex. What will they bring to the twenty-first century? I'm not sure. But I know that it will be smaller, faster, wireless and shiny.