Being Analog:
Coping with Non-Virtual Reality

Copyright © 1998 Walt Crawford
Originally Written June 1998

As you read this, I’m in the process of preparing final camera-ready copy for my next book—currently entitled Being Analog: Building Tomorrow’s Libraries. That self promotion isn’t the reason for this article’s title. Instead, it relates to my experiences over the past few weeks before preparing this article in late spring 1998.

My wife and I moved to a new (old) house, two weeks ago as I begin writing this. The process of house hunting, moving, coping with discoveries at the new address—and the reasons for moving in the first place—made me think about "non-virtual reality" and its significance for massive, sudden changes in media, libraries and human institutions in general. Some of these thoughts may be useful to you in coping with expectations of change and actual change.

Non-Virtual Reality: The Physical World

We hear a lot about how revolutionary the Internet is—how we’ll do everything online and love it. Meanwhile, most of us live most of our lives in the physical world. Non-virtual reality, for those of you with nascent Internet addiction: 3D, with millions of colors and surround sound, plus smells, touch and real people.

Non-virtual reality doesn’t double in capacity every 18 months. But then, neither does personal capacity. We’re all analog: fuzzy, with mixed capacity for change and a strong respect for what we’ve always known. Most of us need lots of non-virtual reality to retain balance in our lives. Most of us need community—and not just the "virtual community" of a listserv or a conference system. Most of us need to be grounded in non-virtual reality: we need lives. Sometimes, those lives require moving—uprooting ourselves and our stuff to a new house or apartment.

Househunting and Technology

Have you read about the wonders of real estate listings on the World Wide Web? Have you actually tried to use the Web to find a new house? For most of us, buying and selling houses represent the biggest financial transactions we’ll ever make. It’s interesting to see just how much technology actually affects househunting.

We planned to move from a city on the north edge of the growing Silicon Valley (Redwood City) to a city closer to its center (Mountain View). You’d expect digital technology to affect all aspects of real estate around here. You’d be wrong.

There are Web sites that show houses offered for sale. I’ve seen a claim that one aggregate site includes 85 percent of all houses on the market in the United States. In our experience, the Web realty sites were entirely useless. Most of the houses listed around here are already under contract; many have already closed escrow. In 1998, houses in this area don’t stay on the market for long, and few realtors put information on the Web until a house has been listed for several days. Why bother?

Even if houses were listed on the Web, what you can gather from a Web listing is nearly useless: price, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, an irrelevant picture, and maybe a street name. You won’t know when the house is open for showing or when bids will be accepted—and I can’t imagine buying a house based on information on a Web site. The source of good information on available houses that meet your own needs and income? A good realtor—which, in California these days, means a buyer’s agent. You supplement that with weekend papers, which show listings of open houses. Score zero for digital technology.

Every modern real estate agent uses digital technology in some manner, if only because multiple listing services are all computerized, and lists of comparable houses are based on computer searches. The inspections we ordered looked to be word-processed with liberal doses of mandated text, as were the required earthquake, flood, and environmental hazard reports. Lending agencies rely on computer databases for current rates and to generate preapprovals and loan contracts—but the key information (how much a mortgage will cost, given a particular interest rate, term, and loan size) tends to come from a handy little printed card. Oh, you can go entirely high-technology and apply for a mortgage on the World Wide Web—and if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up shipping all your most personal financial information to a worldwide fraud network.

When it comes to customer contact, agents differ widely. Some agents have Web sites; some don’t. Some have e-mail; some don’t. We’ve worked with the same agent for two decades. She knows the area; she’s good at what she does; she works at the largest agency in the area. She doesn’t have e-mail. Voice mail, fax and, to some extent, cell phones are the key technologies of today’s realty market.

Without fax, the hot Silicon Valley housing market would probably collapse. Without cell phones for most agents, it would get even stranger than it is. But then…the mortgage firm we used (a division of an S&L, with strong local ties) doesn’t even have voice mail. The receptionist copies down messages on little slips of paper. Welcome to the 21st century.

Inspections, preapprovals and loan contracts may be computer-generated or computer-mediated—but the most important contracts and documents use standard stock with lots of handwritten entries. Now as decades ago, offers, counter-offers, and final agreements rely on handwriting.

Does technology play a larger role in other housing markets? It might—but here in the heart of the digital beast, the business is mostly people, phones, and lockboxes. I wouldn’t invest three years gross household income based on a virtual reality tour that could have been massaged with software—or on anything short of walking through a house and around the neighborhood. Would you?

Things have certainly speeded up around here—but that’s largely because the housing market is so strange in these parts. The national rule of thumb is that you sell your house before you buy one, so that your resources are assured. We didn’t do that, because so few houses come on the market that we couldn’t be sure we’d ever find one we’d be willing to buy—and we weren’t willing to be stranded in an apartment. We did some searching last fall; then, in late winter, we started hunting in earnest.

The first time we made an offer, it was five percent higher than an asking price that we already knew represented a 25 percent profit over seven months. There were seven simultaneous bids: ours wasn’t one of the three they heard in full. All these bids required agents gathering in an office: critical matters take place in person.

The second time we got "lucky." The house was vacant; the realtor didn’t set an offer date; we made an offer a couple of days after the house came open. We wanted a 60-day close of escrow, so we could sell our house and plan the move. The owners insisted on a 30-day close. We took it. Never mind the numbers: if you don’t live around here, you wouldn’t believe them in any case. Our offer was "standard" for 1998 in this area: fully preapproved loan, no financing contingencies, no sale contingency (that’s right: we had to be willing to buy the new house even if we didn’t sell ours), indeed no contingencies except pest and general contractor reports. That’s the real effect of digital technology on Silicon Valley housing: too much money chasing too few available houses, making it a strong seller’s market.

Having committed ourselves to a figure that still staggers us, we did "the usual" for our existing house. We put the house on the market on a Tuesday: the day of the realtors’ tour for our city. Because we have indoor cats, we wouldn’t stand for a lockbox, so people had to call our agent to see the place. We had one three-hour open house that Sunday. The next Monday evening, we took offers. Four offers arrived. The lowest was almost ten percent higher than the appropriate market price we’d asked; the highest was 25 percent higher. We took the second highest bid, a mere 17 percent higher than our asking price, because we didn’t think the highest one would work—and we required a 19-day close of escrow so both houses would close on the same day. We also required the buyers to waive their financing contingency—which is where 20 minutes on cell phones came in, as the buyer’s agent negotiated that with his clients.

We sold the house in six days, for a huge amount more than we’d asked. The house we were selling was a small 45-year-old house in a decent neighborhood, in excellent condition but without extensive updating. The house we purchased was a smaller 54-year-old house in a nicer neighborhood, in OK condition with little or no updating. The most significant technologies in the process were cell phones, fax machines, regular phones—and cars to visit candidate houses. The house we purchased was on the Web—but only after we signed the contract. I don’t believe our old house ever did make it to the Web. Overall, digital technology didn’t impact these big-ticket decisions as much as you might expect, even in the most technologically intense part of the country. Some critical decisions require the real world. I’m sure there are some who would buy a house sight unseen over the Net; there are some who have arranged marriages sight unseen over the Net. It isn’t a common practice, and it isn’t likely to become sensible in the future.

The Move and Aftermath

Back in the leisurely days of 60-day escrow closings, you could plan a move calmly and coherently. With only 19 days—and only 15 days to move after our agent confirmed that both sales were firm—it got a little trickier. But then, we have modern technology to speed everything up. I could probably even download a moving checklist from the World Wide Web.

That part turns out to be true. Yahoo shows at least a dozen different moving checklists—which turn out to be two different checklists, each put on the Web by quite a few different realtors and other agencies. The two were comparable; I printed off one to refresh my own memory. Naturally, they start with the things you do two or three months ahead: good luck!

When it came to planning the move itself and notifying people and institutions of the move, the picture is decidedly mixed. Let’s look at some of the ways technology did and didn’t help us.

The Moving Estimate and Contract

You can certainly find movers on the Web, but it’s not plausible to estimate the cost of a move without visiting the house and surveying the contents. I wouldn’t trust a mover who offered a "firm" bid over the Internet—there’s just too much variation in amount and complexity of goods. We called the moving chain we’ve used before—getting the number from the Yellow Pages—and the estimator came out.

The estimation process was technologically advanced. The estimator had a specialized handheld computer. As we looked at the contents of each room, she either scanned one end of the computer over a line on a plastic sheet or keyed something in. Once we’d gone through the whole house, she connected a tiny portable printer and printed out a two-page detailed listing: the contents of each room, expressed in box sizes and hours needed for packing. That was followed by a summarized estimate for boxes, packing, and the move. Neat, fast, tidy. The estimate was considerably more explicit than previous estimates, and with enough detail so that we could (and did) modify the order for packing boxes based on what we expected to get rid of. This step—the estimate, not the move—probably represented the most impressive use of digital technology to improve the tasks of changing houses. It’s a winner. For all my doubts about personal digital assistants as best-sellers in general, there’s no question that specialized handheld computers can be enormously useful, in this case as in others.

Change of Address and Change of Account

Notifications were a mixed bag. Of 28 magazine subscriptions, two or three changes could be done on magazine Web sites; the rest required mail notifications. One case was particularly strange: they publish a Web site to change subscriptions, but you must have a current mailing label—and it’s a magazine that puts the label on shrinkwrap, making the high-tech solution fairly useless. And, for all the computerized mailing systems, most magazines need at least two months to make the address change effective (TV Guide and Travel Weekly being notable exceptions in our case).

The newspaper? A phone call—and our paper was at the new address the first full day we were there. Credit cards and bank accounts mostly rely on phones; we’re still trying to get our bank to spell the street name properly. My primary airline’s frequent flyer program uses a Web site—an easy and secure process. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles actually does have the address-change form on their Web site—but you have to download it, fill it out, and mail it in (since a physical signature is required).

Banks? Cable? Utilities? Insurance? Investment houses? Generally, the telephone—except, of course, that cable required an in-person visit in the new city, even though it was the same cable company.

Mountain View has an excellent Web site, which made it easier to set up new utilities. You couldn’t do it on the Net, but at least you knew what was needed and who to call. Our stockbroker has a superb Web site, but it wouldn’t handle an address change. The phone company uses…the phone company: big surprise.

I’d guess computers were used in all these transactions, but most notifications required either telephone or paper mail. Of course, if all media were digital, one transaction would do it all—but it’s worth noting that it took a week at the new house before my computer was connected to a phone line. In any case, all media aren’t likely to be digital in any plausible future. If they were, who would be the supplier? The cable company—the one agency that would not complete the address change without a lengthy in-person session? You can sneer at the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Motor Vehicles all you want—but they handled the move gracefully and efficiently, with no more than five minutes’ work on our part. The cable company (TCI—who else?): well, what would you expect?

Moving and Settling In

The technology of moving: big rolls of padding paper and plastic wrap, huge amounts of packing tape, lots of boxes, lots of muscle. That’s about it. You can’t download your sofa to a new location or replicate original art in a different county.

When you’re in a new place, particularly an old house, you find little problems. Our new house had lots of them. We needed a shed torn down, an unruly lawn cut, electrical outlets upgraded…and a phone jack installed in my home office, since that’s where the computer would be.

For all this stuff, our key technologies were a standard phone and the yellow pages. Contractors relied on cellular phones and pagers (this all took place around the time of the great pager breakdown). Word of mouth was the only way we could get a gardener: voice mail is as good a way to not answer phone calls as it is to receive them. Finding a reliable gardener on the World Wide Web? Maybe to mow a virtual lawn—but in the real world, in 1998, forget it.

Now is the time to tell you about hooking our TV and computer into the optical fiber loop in Mountain View. There isn’t one. Our previous house did have optical fiber for cable TV, but our move closer to the center of Silicon Valley left that nicety behind.

Some cities have indirect meter reading these days—but I don’t know of any virtual way to find a gas leak, which we had near our meter. PG&E had someone out within ten minutes of our call, which probably speaks to the advanced technology of radio dispatch. To find the leak, the serviceman used soapy water and a spray bottle: what else?

Thinking back on the events of the week before and after the move, a blur of packing, contractors, movers, and general nonsense, I wonder just what technological improvements would have made things easier, clearer or cheaper. I don’t come up with all that much. To deal with your goods and the place you live, you need real people with real tools: that’s not likely to change, unless you believe the fantasies of the nanotechnology buffs. (Spray a few quarts of nanotech stuff around the house, and those little critters will fix everything. Unless there’s a virus, in which case your walls might dissolve. Anyone ready to sign up for that particular future?)

Living in a Real Neighborhood

You hear a lot about virtual communities, and there’s a lot to be said for them. But virtual communities aren’t neighborhoods. You may have acquaintances in cyberspace. You may even have friends that you’ve never met. You don’t have neighbors in cyberspace.

We moved into a neighborhood. Not a suffocating group of meddlers, but also not blocks of people who never talk to one another or step outside their houses except to go to their cars. We were greeted informally by various neighbors. Some told us more about the previous state of the house and its owners; others noted how the neighborhood had changed (generally for the better). We met children and pets. There’s no Welcome Wagon around here (as far as I know), but the neighbors made us welcome.

This is Silicon Valley, not Heartland USA. I don’t anticipate street fairs and block parties—and there are no restrictive covenants to be worked around or ignored. People don’t drop by to borrow cups of sugar, and we won’t throw any housewarming parties. That’s our choice, and it’s one that’s respected. But this isn’t a collection of strangers: it’s a neighborhood.

If there’s an observation here, it’s that neighborhoods may be more important these days. The flight from the cities has, in many cases, been reversed. The extreme version of cocooning—hiding in our houses, alone with our technology and our toys—hasn’t happened and seems unlikely as a widespread future. This isn’t a gated community, and we do lock our car and house doors, but we also take evening walks around the neighborhood—passing couples with strollers, singles out walking pets, people just being part of the community. Most of them probably have computers at home. Most of them probably use the World Wide Web. Most of them also seem to appreciate houses, trees, and people.

Why Move At All?

Why did we move in the first place? To be closer to work, particularly after my wife started working at the same place I do. Not to get a bigger or fancier house (this one’s smaller, older, and needs more work). Not specifically to get into a nicer neighborhood (our old one was fine). Primarily to turn a difficult commute into a trivial drive or a long walk.

Isn’t that silly, with today’s technology? My wife and I are both systems analysts. Most of our work involves computers and thinking about requirements and possibilities to use them to improve library operations. An observer could say that we’d make ideal telecommuters. We’d save enough time to more than pay for high-speed dedicated modem lines, and the difference in house prices would pay for many years of ISDN service.

That’s all true, and we considered the possibility of part-time telecommuting. It turns out that face-to-face conversation and group meetings are important to the work we both do. That’s quite apart from the whole set of issues surrounding telecommuting: separating work from home life, assuring that your work is recognized, keeping up with the office environment, and so on. RLG has some part-time telecommuters, and we might do it at some point—but neither of us found it to be a good fit, at least not in the first half of 1998. Moving to be closer to work. That’s a mundane reason, but still probably the most common reason. It’s a reason that makes no sense in an all-digital future.

Conclusions

We’re in the new house, and it’s starting to feel like home. There may be looming problems with our reason for moving, but that’s a different issue entirely. Meanwhile, we’ve been through the process. We’re settling in. That means checking out the local public library—with its catalog on the Web and a glorious new physical building for its collection. We can look for materials from home; we’ll go a mile or two to pick them up. It means finding nearby video rental stores for weekend movies: we’re no more likely to switch to video on demand than most other people are. It means trying out the local supermarkets—no, we’re not about to get produce, meat, and fish by Web-ordered delivery. It means finding the good local bookstores—and, in this town, the biggest bookstore is an independent. It means trying some of the local restaurants, little by little: we don’t eat electrons.

We’re as immersed in media as most people, in our own ways. I read way too many magazines, a daily newspaper, and books (pleasure and serious) whenever possible. My wife reads lots of books, at least half as many magazines, the daily paper, and other stuff. We watch some television (real TV, not just PBS and A&E). I listen to a lot less radio with the shortened commute.

I also read more on the World Wide Web than makes good sense—Slate alone really exceeds my screen-reading preferences. I’m already a user of new media to some extent—and I don’t see the digital media replacing all the traditional ones. Local media ground us in our physical communities. Specialized national and world media, primarily magazines and trade papers, provide the editing we need, the viewpoints we’re looking for, useful ads in an extremely convenient manner—and distribution methods and form factors that let us read whenever, wherever, however we prefer.

Of course new technology improves things. We found out a lot about our new city on the World Wide Web, and we’ll use Mountain View’s Web-based library catalog. We sent e-mail to my family members announcing our new address and phone number. We’ve even gotten some restaurant reviews from the Web.

How would things change ten, twenty, thirty years from now? Most likely, every serious real estate agent will have e-mail—but you’ll still rely on agent expertise to help you find houses, and you’ll still visit the house in person before you buy it. It’s possible that offers and negotiation will involve computers more directly, but that’s not a safe bet. You’ll find more contractors using digital resources—but it will still take physical labor to carry out the contracts. And we’ll probably be a little more impatient to get back online—but I’d guess our most important media sources will still be print.

Like everyone else, we’re analog people. Technology provides tools; we choose whether and when to use them. We, and those we work with, don’t adopt every new tool—and we don’t use all tools equally well or rapidly. Most of all, we live in "non-virtual reality"—a physical environment with real people, real places, and real problems. I wouldn’t trade it for any cyberverse—even if that were possible.


Layout modified July 18, 1999.

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