When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, Europe experienced a ‘Year Without a Summer’.
At the time, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (aged 18), and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron in Switzerland. With outdoor activities being unappealing due to the poor weather, they spent a lot of time indoors. It was during this summer that Frankenstein was written.
It’s too soon to tell how long the Icelandic volcano will continue to spew ashes into the atmosphere, and what effect it’ll have on travel and the weather. But even here at Campus Party EU – a gathering of 800 young technologists, hackers, and artists in Madrid – you can see some interesting behaviour. More than half of the attendees come from countries other than Spain, and all of them are distracted and stressed out by the challenges of getting home.
Someone suggested to me that the Campuseros could use their time stranded in Madrid to make new creative works, like Frankenstein, but perhaps as games or movies or websites. Looking around the hall right now, I see people watching Lost, playing Starcraft and Battlefield Heroes, reading Twitter, and constantly refreshing BBC News; not much creativity.
So you could easily say that the ubiquitous presence of laptops, electricity, and connectivity has more or less eliminated any chance of Mary Shelley’s enforced isolation occurring, at least for these city-dwelling geeks. Not even a volcano that covers the entire continent with ash can stop them from wasting time.
But there a few intrepid people who have used the time productively; one team here is making an interesting social Flash game about – you guessed it – flying planes across Europe, between clouds of ash. While this game could have been made without the internet, they’re certainly benefitting from online resources, development environments, and the ability to test APIs with Twitter; and when they’re done later today, they’ll be able to publish the site to the world, instantly. That’s no bad thing.
Regardless of technology, human nature – and the focus required for good, productive, creative work – remain the same. We remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – we don’t remember all the people who spent the Year Without a Summer indoors, doing whatever people did in 1816 to waste time. Perhaps someone will produce a creative work that people still talk about in 2210 – and they won’t care about all the time wasted on Twitter and YouTube.