Wired New World

By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005; 9:44 AM

The first time I felt like turning back the time on technology was in college. It was 12 or 13 years ago, and I was reading "The Overworked American" by Juliet B. Schor for a sociology class.

Schor changed my world when she suggested that labor-saving devices actually allowed us to do twice as many things in half as much time. It made technological "advances" seem like just another scam, not far from the plot of that short story by J.G. Ballard, "The Subliminal Man," in which mega-corporations urge people to spend and replace their devices as soon as they can to avoid being thought of by their neighbors as obsolete.

Ballard's story, written sometime in the mid-1960s, commented on the human consequences of the proliferation of consumer products designed after World War II -- fatigue, stress and alienation. Today's supposed labor-saving devices -- the wireless phone, the handheld organizer, the laptop, the GPS locator -- serve valid purposes. But as often as not, they also are tools that force us into an endless cycle of work.

USA Today and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer examined this theme in articles published during the past week. What made the pieces more interesting than other technology-meets-life stories were characters who fiercely defended their hectic lifestyles instead of saying, "I know I need to slow down."

The Post-Intelligencer profiled Doyle Albee, an account director at public relations firm Metzger Associates in Boulder, Colo.: "Far from thinking a BlackBerry or a cell phone can be a distraction, Albee said the devices allow him to stay connected and to focus on a client during a meeting. At meetings, for example, Albee discreetly checks the e-mail on his cell phone every 10 to 15 minutes to make sure no emergency is awaiting him. That, in turn, eases lingering anxieties and allows Albee to be 'more involved in the moment.'"

Sure beats all that Buddhist meditation, no?

Albee also told the P-I about the time that his seventh-grade daughter sent him a text message saying she forgot her lunch money. Albee was able to drive to school and deliver the money in time for lunch. It seems funny that he couldn't wire the money to her with his Blackberry, but here's betting that will be possible within in a year or two.

The stars of USA Today's story say that they wouldn't be able to lead their full lives if it weren't for the Internet: "James Cudney manages three kids, frequent business trips and up to 15 homeland defense programs for a technology company. His wife, Elaine, works full-time at a top accounting firm and is active in a business club. He's a Cub Scout leader; she's the Scout pack treasurer. They go to church, attend community events and rarely miss school functions. ... 'But I would not be able to be involved if it wasn't for the Internet,' says James Cudney, 41. 'I wouldn't have been able to be the Cubmaster of Pack 152 without e-mail. I don't have time to do traditional phone trees and calendars by hand.'"

Technology, the paper suggests, might be repaving the road to civic engagement as more people discover that e-mail, Blackberries and other means of constant communication are filling in potholes such as 18-hour-a-day jobs and other professional commitments. Some experts say these disembodied communications are replacing old-timey Elk and Kiwanis clubs, Moose lodges, Rotaries and other artifacts of social involvement. It's a trend, USA Today said, that grew with public gathering sites like MeetUp.com and MoveOn.org.

Technology is especially driving a renaissance in public involvement among community associations, schools, churches and seniors' groups. Here's one example from USA Today: "Jeff and Susan Sanders' Atlanta-area company, AtHomeNet, creates Web sites for homeowners' associations across the country. They started in 1998 and have 2,500 associations as clients. Their reach: more than 650,000 homes. 'It's a nice way for people to get a feel for their neighbors,' Susan Sanders says. 'People create little e-mail lists and get updates.' When a major ice storm hit Pocono Pines, Pa., owners of vacation homes there who are scattered through the Northeast got instant damage reports and photos of their properties via their developments' Web sites. They also could check on retirees who live there year-round to make sure they were OK."

It sounds good, but the big question is when will the backlash begin? Remember back around the time that Schor's book came out? It's when nightly news reports were full of human-interest stores about Wall Street yuppies and other refugees of the caffeine and coke era who cashed in their cozy city digs for polished wood and chipped paint in country farmhouses. The people featured in those stories often said they felt like something was missing, and they had to "go back" to find it. I expect the same thing to happen among the ultra-wired of the current generation. Sooner or later, some of them will find that they prefer to eat a blackberry instead of typing on one.

Backlash Achieved

Seattle is starting to experience some problems with the wireless Internet access -- or WiFi -- world. Even as the city ranks No. 1 in a new report on "unwired" cities, resistance to the always-wired trend is increasing in the ranks of one of its other homegrown industries: "At least one Capitol Hill coffee shop, frustrated by laptop-lugging table hogs, decided to shut it off on the weekends, and others have limited the hours Wi-Fi is available. Most, however, spend too much time thinking about how to bring more people in to cut off the flow," the Post-Intelligencer reported.

The paper said it's not just about people spending too little money and eating too much wireless time, it's about a cold roomful of silent people ignoring one another in favor of their online lives. Here's more about the radical move by Jen Strongin, co-owner of Victrola Coffee & Art: "Strongin never expected that the move, designed to allow more people to cycle through her shop, would spur such intensely polarized reactions, spread through an article written by local wireless expert Glenn Fleishman. 'We never advertised it and never wanted to be an Internet cafe,' Strongin said. 'I am not trying to force people to talk to each other, but now the place feels more lively on the weekends, more like a cafe and less like a library.'"

The article also includes a little wishful thinking from reporter Kristen Millares Bolt: "If Wi-Fi customers treat their cafes well by buddying up at tables and plunking down some cash every 45 minutes, then those cafes will continue to cough up the money every month to keep their wireless up and running. But if more weekend Web monkeys keep clogging up Seattle's favorite cafes with nary a thought to the owner's bottom line, they might see the coffee hot spots cool down. Shoot, people might even start buying the paper again."

Confessions of a Dangerous Blog

Have you seen the recent stories about the Web log for secret confessions? The site is Post Secret and it works like this: People describe their dark secrets and peccadilloes on a postcard and drop it in the snail mail. The blogmaster then posts the submissions for the world to see.

Ivor Tossell in the Toronto Globe and Mail writes that the idea is gaining ground as a new darling in the publishing world: "Public self-flagellation hasn't been this hot since the Middle Ages. Because the Web is both anonymous and sinful, the idea of the Internet confessional is only natural. ... And you can tell it's become a bit of a fad when publishing companies are getting in on the action. For instance, the venerable notproud.com takes anonymous confessions and files them under the seven deadly sins. Now, Simon & Schuster Inc. has published a compilation of their best entries. And after last year's U.S. presidential election, the site sorryeverybody.com solicited photos of Americans holding signs that apologized to the world for having re-elected George W. Bush. It took off. Thousands of submissions poured in, and not long ago the compilation book turned up at Indigo."

Tossell suggests that this inevitable progression from spontaneous blog to the rough draft of a mass-market paperback trounced the notion of these Web sites acting as accurate reflections of what the "common man" thinks. He cites Post Secret as his proof: "Instead, you get artfully prepared entries from people who obviously have a knack for it. (Angst and artists, together at last. Who'da thunk it?) On Post Secret, the whiff of talent crushes the Web's democratic ideal. It might amuse the site's curators to be accused of art, but it's what they've got on their hands."

Confessions of a Dangerous List

The Christian Science Monitor today ran an article on the "43 Things" Web site, another online agora for people to share something besides their deepest, darkest secrets -- their to-do lists. Some of the items up there now? "Pass the CPA exam," "Live in another country," "Be Jewish," "Love without fear" and "spend an entire day watching the extended version of all three Lord of the Rings movies back-to-back-to-back." The Monitor says people from more than 2,500 cities have posted such lists. Among the most popular goals: Stop procrastinating at 1,705 members. Switching to the Firefox browser ranks as the top most-achieved goal. Who knew?

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.


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