The following scenario is not meant to be plausible; it is merely a thought experiment to illustrate how the extraordinary advances in technology within the past two generations can convert one of the most dire, inhospitable places on the planet into an environment that is not only bearable, but perhaps not entirely unpleasant.
The place I have in mind is a solitary confinement cell in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.
When I visited San Francisco a few years ago, I did the usual touristy things, including visiting Alcatraz, the infamous prison located on a small island in the San Francisco Bay, about 2km away from the north shore of San Francisco. The only way to get to Alcatraz is by ferry – there are no roads or tunnels, which makes it an ideal location to incarcerate people. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was in operation from 1934-1963, and is now a popular tourist destination.
As I was listening to the audio tour through my headphones, the narrator described the various areas of the prison. D Block, also known as a “prison within Alcatraz”, was reserved for the worst inmates, and contained 42 solitary confinement cells. Within D Block, was an ominous section called The Hole. These were cells 9-14, and they didn’t even have bars – just walls, and a solid steel door that blocked out all of the light when it was closed. Although the lights were supposed to be kept on when prisoners were inside, they weren’t, and inmates who spent time in The Hole remained in total darkness 24 hours a day, except when a slot in the door was opened briefly to allow a meal to be slid inside.
The maximum amount of time that an inmate could spend in one of these cells was 19 days. While this may not seem very long, the sensory deprivation was maddening. In order to keep his sanity, one prisoner quoted in the audio tour recounted “What I used to do is I’d tear a button off my coveralls, flip it up in the air, then I’d turn around in circles, and I’d get down on my hands and knees and I’d hunt for that button. When I found the button, I’d stand up and I’d do it again”.
Here is a photo I took of one of the solitary cells. Keep in mind that the camera flash lights up the entire cell, which makes it appear more hospitable than it really is. With the co-operation of the staff, some visitors were able to experience the total darkness of these cells for a minute or two, to get a taste of what the prisoners had to endure. I can’t imagine spending up to 19 days in such a cold, inhospitable and sensory-deprived environment – I think that anyone would lose their sanity.
The Premise: Modern Technology Can Transform This Environment
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the accelerating pace of technological development, and how it has completely transformed our lives during only the past two generations. In fact, I now believe that it is possible for an inmate to survive in The Hole for 19 days, and not only keep his sanity, but to have an existence that is not only bearable but perhaps not entirely unpleasant – if he were allowed to bring a single object into the cell with him. That object would be an iPad (or a similar tablet computer). I’m going to use the iPad as an example since it’s the only tablet that I’ve had an opportunity to use. While any iPad will do, I would personally select the 64GB model, and I’d choose the iPad 2 because the non-retina display gives it a longer battery life. The retina-display iPads also take twice as long to charge.
Movies often ask the audience to suspend their disbelief for a while, and I am asking that of you now so that I can focus on the profound effects that technology has on our lives, rather than why a scenario like this is unlikely to happen in real life.
Obviously, this is merely a thought experiment because such a scenario is impractical. Alcatraz was decommissioned in 1963, and even if it was still operating as a prison, conditions in The Hole would probably be considered inhumane (or at least unacceptable) by today’s standards. Secondly, no inmates (especially the worst ones) are going to be issued iPads. Thirdly, Alcatraz (as far as I know) doesn’t have WiFi, and even if it did, the bars and steel walls mean that you’re essentially in a large Faraday Cage, and will likely not receive any wireless signals of any kind, unless there is a wireless router in the adjacent cell.
If it helps with your suspension of disbelief, you could frame this scenario in the context of a new reality television series. Contestants are invited to experience the raw, abusive and inhumane conditions of one of the worst prisons in America – the notorious, isolated and now-closed Alcatraz. To make the series interesting for the viewing audience, infra-red cameras will be installed in the cells, and each contestant will be allowed to bring into the cell, one item of their choice.
The physical environment: Let’s assume that the solitary confinement cell contains a working toilet, a sink, towels, enough soap and toilet paper to last 19 days, and has enough ventilation to make any unpleasant odours dissipate quickly. Let’s also assume that you (as the prisoner / reality show contestant) will be provided with more than enough food and water, and that the cell will be pest and rodent-free. This cell will contain only one additional item: a charging station built into the wall. A WiFi router is located in an adjacent cell, and will provide unlimited bandwidth, and a nice, strong signal 24 hours a day.
The infrastructure: You, will also possess the following intangible items: an iTunes account with $100 in it, a Netflix account, a valid library card, a large collection of e-books, one or more e-mail addresses, access to an offsite home media server (yours or a friend’s) filled with 5-10TB of audio and video, access to the prison’s WiFi network, and accounts on the following: Google, Skype, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WordPress or BlogSpot and Foursquare (OK, just I’m kidding about Foursquare).
Solitary Confinement Begins
At the risk of sounding like a 1980s Infocom text adventure…
The door to your cell slams shut, and you are in total darkness. You may be eaten by a grue. > turn on iPad .
The iPad's screen illuminates your decrepit cell with a dim, bluish-grey light. > increase brightness .
The interior of the cell is much brighter now, but this serves only to highlight its unappealing nature.
Light: The first thing you’ll want to do with your tablet is light up your cell, so that you won’t have to spend your time in total darkness. Simply turning on the iPad will accomplish this, but if you want more light then you can download s “flashlight” app, which will turn the entire screen completely white. This has the added benefit of reducing Seasonal Affective Disorder. Solitary confinement in Alcatraz is distressing enough without having to endure SAD.
Circadian Rhythms: The next thing on my list is maintaining my internal clock. Light deprivation can mess up our circadian rhythms, so it’s a good idea to maintain a regular 24-hour schedule as much as possible. The iPad’s built-in clock helps, but I would also use the alarm clock feature as well. Set the alarm to wake you up at the same time each day, and try to go to sleep at the same time each evening.
How To Turn A Cell Into A Home
Now that you’ve vanquished the darkness and created some structure in your otherwise sensory-deprived life, it’s time to use the technology make your surroundings as pleasant as possible.
A Room With A View: Obviously the solitary confinements cells don’t have any windows, but you can simulate a nice view by using the built-in Picture Frame app. Ideally, you would set this up ahead of time by selecting a few dozen photographs of breathtaking views or relaxing scenery. Lean your tablet against the wall, or prop it up on the sink, and start the Picture Frame app. Now you not only have better views than most of the outside population, but you can change your view whenever you like. For added realism, you can even include a photo of the San Francisco skyline.
Decompress: Buy some New Age nature sounds CDs ahead of time, rip them, and add the MP3s to your tablet. These are just the thing for reducing the stress inherent in adjusting to a new environment. Some alarm clock apps will even wake you up by playing a user-selected MP3 file – you probably don’t wake up to the sounds of the surf, or of birds chirping, but you can now!
Human contact: While this is physically impossible in solitary confinement, you can enjoy virtual human contact using FaceTime. You can FaceTime your friends and family, or them or have them call you for a nice video chat. Note – if your mom calls, make sure that your cell is neat and tidy.
E-Mail: Set up your e-mail accounts ahead of time, to ensure that you’ll always be in touch with your friends and family.
Social Media: Install and and set up your accounts on the following: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time goes by when you use these social media applications.
Phone Calls: You can use Skype or Google Voice to (more or less) turn your iPad into a phone. Once this is set up, be sure to add your number to the National Do Not Call list.
Current Events: Who says that a stint in solitary confinement means being cut off from the world? Download a few news and newspaper apps, and read them each day. Keep abreast of current affairs locally and around the world. Many news web sites allow user comments below their stories, so you can also contribute and offer your opinions.
E-books: Load up on e-books before you arrive, and finally put a dent in that summer reading list. E-books are fairly compact (averaging 1MB per title) so even 1,000 titles will use a fairly modest 1GB of space.
Library Books: Many libraries now loan e-books. Assuming that you’ve memorized your library card number (or have it written in a text file on your tablet), you can browse your library’s collection and check out e-books to your heart’s content.
Netflix: Assuming that Netflix is already set up on your tablet, you can while away your days by watching Big Bang Theory marathons, or (depending on your mood) you could watch a few episodes of Oz or even Alcatraz. :o)
Air Video: Connect to your home media server and stream your multimedia library right to your tablet.
TED Lectures: TED is one of my favourite apps – I could watch TED talks all day long. There are hundreds of fascinating lectures on a myriad of topics, and new talks are added each week. Even though you are trapped in a wretched prison cell, you will come away from these lectures feeling inspired, refreshed and optimistic about humanity again!
iTunes University: Why not use your time to take a university course? They aren’t credit courses, but they are all free, and there are hundreds available on the iTunes University app. Don’t use solitary confinement as an excuse to let your brain turn to mush!
Listen To Music: Load a thousand of your favourite songs in advance, or simply listen to any number of streaming Internet radio stations.
Brain Games: A good chess app could keep you busy the entire 19 days, especially if you’re an enthusiast who likes an aggressive computer player with an adaptable AI. There’s also Sudoku, Scrabble and a plethora of other strategy games to keep your mind sharp.
Surf The Web: Import your bookmarks ahead of time, and continue to visit your usual most-visited web sites.
Get Some Work Done: There’s no reason why you can’t continue to earn a paycheque. Use a Remote Desktop app to control your home PC. If you’re a software developer, your colleagues will assume that you’re still working remotely (which is technically true).
Explore the App Store: If, after all of this, you are still bored, there are hundreds of thousands of apps to keep you occupied and amused.
During the last two generations, the rate of technological advancement has not merely been increasing, but accelerating. The technology available to us today makes one’s geographic location almost irrelevant. Our communication and entertainment has now been digitized – text, sound and images can be transmitted through the air and reconstructed on devices small enough to fit in our pockets. These devices also give us access to the largest repository of information that has ever existed, and one to which we can also contribute. We can now communicate and even work almost anywhere, with just a single device – a PC, smartphone or a tablet computer – and of course, the infrastructure required to support the technology. As I hope I have demonstrated in this thought experiment, a single object can transform even the most vile and wretched place into something not only bearable, but perhaps, not entirely unpleasant.