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Jewish World Review Jan. 11, 1999 /4 Shevat, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The oh-so-sweet sound
of modems in the
morning -- LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. There's nothing like it: the sun casting its first light over the Gulf of Mexico, the warm breeze coming through your open window, the sound of seagulls with their high-pitched, wavering call. . . .

Oh. Sorry. That's not the sound of seagulls coming through the window. It's the sound of a modem.

Someone next door is linking up with the Internet, or with his office e-mail up north. That's the song in the morning air -- not a bird, but a computer. White wings are not swooping from on high -- data is being sped on invisible wings.

In places whose greatest value, or so you would think, lies in their placid remoteness, the word "remote" has taken on a revised meaning. Remote as in "remote access."

The screeching of modems in the morning is only a part of this phenomenon.

That man on the beach, for example -- a heavy-set fellow with a New York or New Jersey accent. From his pallor, it's a good bet that he has just arrived -- a first-day guy. You can see him stretching out on the sand in that ritual of tranquility that has been a symbol of out-of-the-way Florida places for generations -- you anticipate the next sound from him: a deep sigh of relaxation, like his father and grandfather may have exhaled on beaches just like this. The workplace is left behind for a few days or a few weeks, he has walked out near the water, and now is the time for . . ..

Giving his credit card information, apparently.

For that is what you hear: You hear this man talking loudly into his cell phone, ordering something from some company or other far away. He is not the only person on this beach, although he would seem to believe that he is; why else would he be talking in such booming decibels?

His answer to you might be that his cellular connection is bad -- as if that is an excuse for turning the world into his personal phone booth.

(By the way: The last time we advanced our the-world-is-not-a-phone-booth theory, many people got in touch to say the analogy is imprecise. A phone booth -- and you don't see many of them these days -- has courtesy built into it, in the form of its four walls and roof and door. A phone booth is what the world needs -- a place for people to do their talking without annoying everyone around them. But you get the point.)

Few people, in fact, seem to mind the man yapping loudly near the Gulf's waves. Not because his neighbors on the sand are forgiving sorts -- but because many of them have their own cell phones to their ears. They have paid good money and spent valuable vacation time to leave the harried cities and come to the peaceful edge of the land, near the wordless water. . . .

And they are communicating. At top volume. This particular man next does something that defies all reason. He has already given his credit card number, at a voice level that guaranteed that anyone in the vicinity, if they so chose, could pilfer it. But then -- evidently in response to a request bouncing off a satellite and into his ear, through his tiny phone -- he takes it a step further.

He bellows out his name, and he spells it. He announces his home address. He discloses his home telephone number.

The sun is in the sky; the water is lapping at the shoreline; this man has just provided enough information for any nearby persons with an unkind bent to get on their own phones, call the priciest merchants they can think of, and place an order, courtesy of the man in the sand.

But you are asking: How would anyone remember all that? How would anyone on this beach, removed from the business tools of office life, be able to write down the man's credit card number, expiration date, name and other personal information?

The answer is elementary. And it is demonstrated by the man himself.

Because -- two calls later -- when he is speaking to his office, and a colleague apparently instructs him to call some other business contact, how do you think the man takes note of the number to call?

He -- and I saw this with my own eyes -- picks up a shell and writes the telephone number in the sand.

And then, in this world that is, indeed, one endless phone kiosk, he places the call, for all to hear. All the people fleeing the work world, thinking that they are free as birds -- except that no bird's voice can compete with the proliferating melodies of multiple modems.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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