It's 9:05 a.m. and Samuel A. Simon has just finished his first meeting of the day. The businessman's eyes barely look up as he crosses the parking lot, head down, feet shuffling. Every ounce of his attention is focused on the little blue gadget that has become a fixture in his life.
Simon wishes he could say he hadn't checked his BlackBerry -- a handheld e-mail device -- during the meeting, but that would be a lie.
He is, he admits, an addict. And it's not just the BlackBerry. Simon doesn't leave the house without his cell phone, personal organizer and laptop computer. Gadgets line the pockets of his briefcase, and chargers crowd the countertops of his kitchen in McLean. The search for the next new thing that will do it all never ends, and maybe part of him likes it that way.
As society's quest to become more mobile and more connected marches on, the consumer electronics industry has coughed up round after round of products to meet our every networking need. For most people, the parade of new gadgets is a sideshow that merits just peripheral attention -- a working cell phone and moderately fast Internet connection are often enough to suffice. But some take their technology much more seriously. For them, it is an obsession and a way of life. Their tools become extensions of their being, changing the way they work and play and communicate.
Spend a day with Simon, who runs the District-based public advocacy firm Issue Dynamics Inc., and watch modern man assimilate this new digital world.
During his morning meeting, Simon receives an e-mail from his assistant. There's a problem with his plane ticket for an upcoming trip to Israel, it said. Back in his car, he whips out his cell phone to dial the office and check his voice mail, then transfers to his assistant to give her instructions on how to handle the plane ticket. Next to his phone rests a device that plays the audio versions of cable television, allowing him to listen to the evening news in his car.
Simon needs to get to Reagan National Airport but has never driven there from this location in Fairfax, so he plugs the destination into the satellite navigation system that sits on the dashboard of his car. Soon, an electronic voice is guiding him through every turn.
Almost without exception, Simon, 60, says the impact of such technology has been positive. As a kid, he struggled enormously with handwriting, a problem he says verges on a disability. When he got access to a typewriter, it was as if the clouds had parted, he recalls -- taking notes and writing papers were no longer a nightmare. And from then on, he was hooked. (His original IBM Selectric typewriter is tucked away in a basement room, a sort of graveyard for technologies past.)
Waiting for the airport parking lot shuttle, Simon immediately takes his BlackBerry out of his breast pocket, scrolls through e-mails and types speedy responses with his thumbs. Four meetings are on his calendar this day, two in Fairfax and two in New York. None of them has anything to do with his company. Simon sits on the boards of half a dozen community organizations, is a member of several more and is about to star in a McLean community theater production. Today, and many other days, Simon must manage his business from a distance.
"There's no question in my mind that I could not do it all without the flexibility and accessibility of this technology," he says.
At the airport security gate, Simon brags that he's got the clearance process down to a science. Cell phone, BlackBerry, digital recorder and personal digital organizer are placed in various pockets of his suit coat, which is folded neatly on top of his laptop and placed in a bucket separate from the bucket holding his briefcase and shoes. He saunters through without a hitch.
Seated on the plane, Simon immediately puts his laptop on the seat next to him and takes out his personal organizer, a device called a Sony Clie. On the Clie, he keeps a digital version of his daily calendar and an address book, among other records. He goes over his agenda for the day and then taps on his laptop to read a few industry newsletters he downloaded the previous evening.
Throughout the 50-minute flight, he checks his BlackBerry.
Simon used to be a three-pack-a-day smoker. He remembers savoring the last cigarette of the night and the first one each morning. That's the way he feels about his BlackBerry. It rests on his nightstand as he sleeps, and he reaches for it immediately upon waking.
"They joke about it being a 'crackberry,' but there is some seriousness to that," he says. "I feel like I'm having technology slowly overtake me."
When the plane comes to a stop, Simon unbuckles, gathers his belongings and stands to exit. As he waits, his head again drops, and his BlackBerry comes out. Behind him, four men in suits have assumed the exact same position, each studying a BlackBerry of his own.
Simon's BlackBerry-scrolling continues through the hallways of LaGuardia Airport and into a waiting chauffeured town car. A call to his assistant confirms that things at the office are fine, and she gives him the highlights of client calls that have come in. Twenty minutes later, he is still on the phone, this time rescheduling an appointment that was canceled for the day.
Simon is on the board of overseers at Hebrew Union College in New York City, and he has two meetings with officials from the religious school today. As the car navigates the city streets, his Clie beeps with a reminder of the first appointment. He calls to say he'll be late.
Once there, Simon sits down with the school's provost to brainstorm ways the college can take advantage of technology. Simon's firm is known for helping clients build online campaign tools and create a presence on the Web. He pulls out his laptop, which automatically detects a wireless Internet connection, and begins to talk about the power of blogs and distance-learning applications.
Between meetings, the BlackBerry comes out again, and then Simon gets on his cell phone as two of the university's fundraisers wait to take him to lunch.
"This is me making a living," he tells them and walks to the other side of the room to complete his conversation.
When the lunch meeting does begin, Simon listens to the two fundraisers describe projects the school is undertaking, and he talks to them about possible funding sources. Twice during the hour-long lunch, his cell phone rings (the ringer is a loud rendition of the "William Tell Overture"), and twice he answers it. The two women wait in awkward silence as he tells an employee how to handle a client issue.
By 3 p.m., Simon is in a cab back to the airport, talking to his assistant and negotiating the schedule of meetings for the next morning. He is transferred to an associate to discuss a job candidate. All the while, he is scrolling, scrolling, scrolling though the messages on his BlackBerry.
At LaGuardia, he once again goes through his security routine -- gadgets in coat pockets, coat folded neatly, shoes and briefcase in a separate bucket. Simon spends the plane ride home listening to a digital recording of the play he'll be starring in that weekend. It's crunch time, and he needs to nail down his lines.
It's been a year since Simon has spent a day "unplugged." His family -- which includes two grown children, a granddaughter and a wife who is not particularly taken with technology -- used to turn everything off between Christmas and New Year's, but that tradition eventually faded away. While some people might resent always being so easy to reach, Simon says he has never regarded it as an annoyance.
"It's exactly the opposite feeling for people for which the technology enables them to do things," he says.
Back in Virginia, Simon heads home to quickly change clothes and grab a bite to eat before his last event of the day, a meeting of the Consumer Protection Commission of Fairfax County. Immediately after walking in the door, he heads over to a laptop that rests on his kitchen counter. He signs on to America Online instant messenger and soon begins a dialogue with his daughter, who just bought a house in Baltimore.
Thirty minutes later, the gurgling beeps that signify "new message" keep coming, and Simon can't pull himself away.
Over a quick sushi dinner, Simon explains why he wouldn't trade his collection of gadgets for a single device that could do it all.
"It's like flying with a single-engine plane," he says. For him, it's all about redundancy. His BlackBerry is also a phone, his phone can access the Web, his Clie can download pictures of his granddaughter and his laptop is synchronized with his daily calendar. If any one thing breaks, he has a backup.
At the final meeting, deep inside the Fairfax County Government Center, Simon discovers there's no wireless connection for his BlackBerry. No worry; he can still send text messages with his cell phone. As the commissioners run through complaints about cable companies and car dealers, Simon occasionally punches a few keystrokes into his phone.
Just after 10 p.m., it's time to go home. But Simon has one more trick to show. He got a special message during the meeting, he says as he pulls out his cell phone. There on the screen is a digital picture of his 3-year-old granddaughter in her pajamas.
"She puts her hand on her head when she's tired," he says with a proud smile.