Purple Boxes, On the Highway

Last week, my family spent a few days visiting family and friends in New York. It was a lovely trip, and, at some point, I plan on blogging about the few days we spent in Chautauqua, NY (where a dear friend of mine and her husband play every summer in the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra). Our brief visit to that place was surreal, inspiring, and provocative — there’s some interesting lessons to be learned about ideals of lifelong learning, utopian visions, and the weight of institutions.

But that’s for a longer, more involved post. Right now, I’m reflecting on a much simpler, but equally fascinating experience I had on the drive home.

Ash Borer Boxes
Emerald Ash Borer Survey Tree (Harpers Ferry, WV) by takomabibelot on Flickr

As we were making our way across the New York – Pennsylvania border, several times I noticed some strange, triangular purple boxes hanging from the trees on the side of the highway. I was intrigued, particularly when I continued to see them as we made our way across PA, into Maryland and West Virginia.

My husband and I debated what they were for — perhaps they were meant to house some kind of bird? Erik wondered if they were related to studying the white nose syndrome that has been plaguing bat populations up and down the east coast.

When I got home, I did what any good citizen of the Web does. I fired up Google and typed in “purple boxes hanging on trees near highway.”

What I found was approximately 15 thousand search results, and the first one answered my question. In this thread at a forum of VW enthusiasts, someone responded that the boxes were part of a study to monitor the emerald ash borer, a vicious little beast that has been destroying ash trees in eastern states. And, of course, that forum thread was only one of thousands of posts where people were asking about and discussing the purple boxes. I could have spent the rest of the evening learning everything I wanted to know about the boxes, the borer, and the demise of eastern ash trees.

It hit me as I was conducting the search and having my question answered that I was engaging in an activity that 15 years ago was totally impossible. I know that’s not a huge revelation — of course the internet (and Google) have completely redefined my access to information.

But what was interesting to me was how I didn’t even think about what I was doing. Here’s what happened

1. I saw something I didn’t understand.
2. I had a question about it.
3. I went to Google.
4. My question was answered.

It never even occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to get an answer to my question.

Now, contrast that to what my response would have been 15 years ago had I seen strange purple boxes hanging from trees on the highway. I probably would have gone, “Huh. That’s weird.” And not given much more thought to the phenomenon.

Now, however, as soon as I saw those boxes I simply had to know what they were for. And I had to know because I pretty much knew I had a way to find out the answer. I guess my point is that in this information-rich world, not knowing is simply not an option for me anymore. If I didn’t have access to the tools to find my answers, I think it would drive me crazy. I’d lie awake at night wondering about those little purple boxes. Losing the internet (or Google) would feel like losing part of my brain. Now that’s weird, huh?