On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau took up residence in the small cabin he had built on Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., to confront the essentials of life.
On April 25 of this year, technology consultant Brady Gilchrist settled into a small cabin cruiser tied up in the Toronto Outer Harbour Marina, to pursue his quest for "the digital life."
He outfitted Myne Toye, a 27-foot Catalina, with about $3,000 worth of electronics, mostly off the shelf, such as a large server he refers to as his "data furnace" and a (very local) local-area network.
His goal in his five-month experiment, he says, has been to test whether there's really enough content available digitally to replace traditional media such as books, newspapers, and tapes. His conclusion: "For the most part, yes, it's possible to remain an active participant" in both the cultural and business spheres through digital media alone.
The one area where the pickings have been slim is books. But he has found a lot of classic texts online through Project Gutenberg.
With Microsoft Reader loaded onto his HP Jornada pocket PC device, with its backlit screen, he can demonstrate that e-reading may be pleasanter than many of us have reckoned. Newspapers and magazines have been easy to replace with their online editions; films he rents as DVDs and watches on the computer.
For music, of course, there's Napster, the downloading service. "It's not just about getting music for free," he insists. Rather it's about whole new ways of presenting music - through programs that interpret music visually, for instance, so that a recurring rhythm appears as a jagged moving line. It's about "liberating music from its container," Gilchrist says.
He is no e-hermit. "Digital nomad" might be a better term. "I really like Kensington Market," he says, referring to Toronto's colorful multiethnic food-shopping district. "I don't want to deprive myself of that.... Much of this [experiment] is about finding the balance" between virtual and real experience.
It's about digital versus analog, not about high-tech for its own sake. "It's easy to surround yourself with the technology you most need," Gilchrist says. His Internet connection is over a simple phone line for about $15 a month - although he admits to doing a fair bit of downloading from high-speed networks when he's traveling.
Why a boat for this experiment, rather than, say, a very small apartment? He's owned Myne Toye for years. "It's a part of who I am," he says. But it did offer a "special challenge of connectivity."
If the nautical austerity of Myne Toye isn't a persuasive enough argument that less can be much, much more, Gilchrist has an even more stripped down kit for the road: a Jornada pocket PC device, with schedule, e-mail, two dozen e-books, word processor, and voice recorder ("I call it my everything device"); an eight-gigabyte Acer Travelmate laptop; and a satellite phone. For good measure he'll throw in a garden-variety cellphone, a global positioning system, and a digital camera. It still fits into a briefcase no bigger than what a typical commuter might schlepp to the 7:20.
"Where I am right now is a little ahead of the curve, but not that far," he says. The days are getting shorter and colder, and the waterfront phase of a digital life is drawing to a close. Gilchrist has some interesting options for his next phase, but wants to be discreet while negotiations are under way.
Brady Gilchrist's Web site is www.adigitallife.net
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society