One Answer to Too Much Tech: Sorry, I'm Not Here

Sonia Gioseffi says she can't do cardio at the health club without her iPod.
Sonia Gioseffi says she can't do cardio at the health club without her iPod. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 16, 2006

You get text messages on your cell phone, but you never, ever send one. You don't do certain e-mails during the day, only at night, after 9. You carry your BlackBerry everywhere you go, except on the golf course.

That's Bruce Blakeney's only decree: "No CrackBerry on the course." Never mind social manners. This is a very personal rule, strictly enforced.

"I'm an IT manager. I'm on call 7 by 24. But, see, it's like this: You have to take time for yourself. What do you most enjoy doing as a hobby? To me, it's golf," says Blakeney, 46, who usually putts around the Enterprise Golf Course in Mitchellville, where he lives. "And I don't carry a thing when I'm golfing. Not a thing . I would never get to really enjoy myself if I carried my BlackBerry with me."

In these multitasking, hyperkinetic, gadget-obsessed times -- when 19-year-old Daisy Castillo feels "naked" without her cell phone, when 27-year-old Sonia Gioseffi "can't do cardio at the gym" on the treadmill without her iPod -- it helps to have a few rules in place, no matter how arbitrary, no matter how nonsensical, while clicking our lives away in the techno-sphere. We want control. Or, more to the point, we like to think we are in control.

So Todd Liu, 24, an elementary school teacher, doesn't do personal e-mails at work. Dallas Carson, 28, a clinical psychologist, always steps outside -- outside a theater, outside a coffee shop, outside a friend's apartment, just outside -- to take a call on his cell phone. Nakia Bittle, 27, an office assistant, turns her cell phone off the moment she steps into her house.

"If you need to call me, you can call my home phone. But if you don't have my home number," says Bittle, laughing, "then you're not supposed to have it."

In a land where you can upload or download just about anything, the person with the rulebook is king. Or so he thinks.

"With the number of options people have -- we've got laptops, cell phones, Treos, BlackBerrys, iPods, you name it -- we're overwhelmed. In the past, people defined themselves by what they did or used. Now you define yourself by what you don't do or don't buy," says Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, that venerated bible of gizmos, and author of "New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World."

Kelly abides by several rules. He doesn't own a BlackBerry, although he's quick on e-mail. He owns a cell phone, but there's only one person who knows the number, his wife Gia-Miin. He's got a theory for this idiosyncratic brand of individual rulemaking, and he calls it the "neo-Amish." For his next book, "What Technology Wants," he has visited the Amish frequently in Pennsylvania, taking careful notes of how they adopt -- or reject -- new technologies. The Amish use disposable diapers but don't allow zippers on their clothing. They use rollerblades but cannot drive or own cars. (They can take rides, though.) "There is no firm consistency," Kelly explains. These rules might not make perfect sense for outsiders, he adds, but for the Amish, they're logical, a way of lessening their ties to technology, of saying "no, thank you" to the next hot new thing when most of society -- that means the rest of us -- almost always responds with a hyperventilating "Yes!"

"Many of us have this neo-Amish pattern in our use of technology, and it's our own way to exert some sort of power over it," Kelly says. "These gadgets are supposed to be serving us, but we have so many of them that we feel like we're enslaved to our servants. So we create restrictions to show who's boss. Like, I may be a slave to e-mail, but I don't text-message, therefore I really have the upper hand."

Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist, offers this view: "We're in this process of balancing out the benefits of technology to the costs of technology."

In the beginning of the cell-phone era, when cell phones looked like bricks, everyone thought owning one was "all benefits, no cost," says McCracken, a member of MIT's comparative media studies program and the former director of the Institute for Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. It wasn't until later, he says, that we realized that there were downsides to being connected 24/7, every day, every week. "Before the cell phone, we can always say, 'Oh, I was in the yard when you phoned,' " says McCracken. "Now the last remaining excuse you have is, 'Oops, I'm in a dead zone.' This is the curse of digital slavery."

Cole McGee, a 33-year-old consultant, is trying to get out of those invisible handcuffs. She has two self-imposed rules, both freshly minted. One, no listening to her iPod on the Metro. Two, no bringing her BlackBerry to bed.

On the iPod rule, she explains: "I have this small black book where I collect little snippets of conversations I used to hear on the Metro. One time, there was this woman sitting behind me, talking about the church parking lot where she first smoked a cigarette," says McGee. "But since I got an iPod, I hadn't been writing on it. You know, I missed hearing those conversations." She took control.

On the BlackBerry rule, she recalls one particularly memorable night: It's about 3 a.m. The BlackBerry vibrates. It startles her gadget-unfriendly boyfriend, a Brit who didn't own a cell phone. That was the beginning of the end -- not of the BlackBerry, but of their relationship. Since then, "I've been leaving my BlackBerry in the foyer," says McGee. The control thing again.

Bernard Gray shines shoes in front of the BlackBerry-infested, power-lunching Palm Restaurant downtown. The self-described "shoeologist" has been a regular there -- shows up Mondays through Fridays, 1 to 10 p.m. -- for nearly 12 years. He's got a cell phone, but says he only makes calls and seldom accepts them. "Less hassle that way," he says. He has a Walkman, too, but he takes off his headphones when giving a $6 shine, "out of respect for the customer."

"Snoop Dogg can wait," the 45-year-old adds, while his customer, a chubby, bespectacled man in a three-piece, gray pinstriped suit plops down, yammering into his Treo.

"So what happened? . . . What's that? . . . Is she coming tonight?"

Gray, who looks like a meatier, younger brother of Richard Pryor, cracks a smile. Later, he tells himself, "I'm better off without that gadget."

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