Wednesday, February 18, 2004

At 3:00 in the lab in College Library there is never a moment when people aren’t moving – walking into the lab with furrowed brows like they’re on a mission, leaving the lab in a hurry or strolling with a friend, or moving to or from the printers. Most of the people who walk in scan the room, like they’re checking out the people or looking for an open computer. No one hesitates about heading to the left or right of the lab – people know whether they want to use a Mac (on the left) or Windows (on the right), and even though they scan the other side of the room, they don’t give it a second glance.

The first thing to do when you get to the computer of your choice, if we follow the example demonstrated in this lab, is to get situated. This may include one or more of the following: remove hat, scarf, mittens, jacket, gloves; pull out papers and pens; get phone out; get out Pepsi and granola bar and place them carefully slightly behind the monitor just far enough back to not catch the attention of lab workers but not too hidden so as to appear uncool and concerned about getting caught. Logging on to the computers is often unnecessary, because users don’t always log off. Email is the top priority when spending time at any computer, and is often checked before any other activities begin.

The main activities that users appear to be in the lab to perform are text-based. There are a few people using web design programs or draw/paint programs, but most are reading and writing. The most used programs appear to be web browsers (people checking email, WebCt, Google, reading the news in various languages, etc.), and Microsoft Word. Probably fewer than 10% of the applications available on these computers are currently being used. Everyone uses Internet Explorer (why?). Everyone has IM open. Ok, I’m generalizing a bit. But not much.

Time spent in the lab varies, and there seem to be three types of people here. In order of time spent in the lab from least to most, the first merely walks in with all of their outdoorwear on and bookbag, and they stroll over to a person who is sitting at a computer, apparently right in the middle of a big project and working hard. The two people chat a bit, perhaps laugh, and suddenly both are walking out together. The second type of person spends some time in the lab, maybe working on a specific project or just killing time between classes. This type of person pulls out a pen and paper when sitting down and sometimes gets up to print something off at the printers located in the middle of the large room. They seem to spend about a half hour to a whole hour here. The third variety camps out in the lab. They have several papers vying with the keyboard for space, definitely a pen, and sometimes apparently require a Pepsi and granola bars for sustenance during their stay here. Even this group can be divided in to those who appear to be working on something that is for some reason due, and those who are working on personal projects. The people camping out for personal work seem to choose computers in the corners of the room, preferably where no one can see them but they can see others, and they put on large headphones. If you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse at the monitor of this type of lab user, it will be riddled with open windows of several programs.

Whether staying for an extended time or just to pick up a friend, all lab users contribute to and experience the environment. The keys click, people cough, sneeze, talk to each other and, more often, talk on their phones, which ring, beep, or play songs. The computer fans hum, especially the Macs, and chairs squeak and clack against the tables. Lab staff moves in and out of offices, slamming doors. People who walk in swish by in their coats and sniffle after coming in from the cold. There are many people who obviously come in and out during the day, yet the lab appears clean on first glance. After looking closely, though, there is dried soda under my keyboard and crumpled papers at our feet. Part of what makes the lab look clean is that the computers are fairly new and in neat rows, the lighting is good, and the room is large and open.

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