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Jewish World Review June 22, 2000 / 19 Sivan, 5760

Jim Bray's TechnoFILE

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Consumer Reports

Freedom or digital slavery? -- WHATEVER HAPPENED to the promise of cellular telephones?

Remember those golden days of technology when cell phones were still big enough that they couldn't slip into your pocket? Having a phone that you could take with you anywhere had lots of promise; it would empower business people, it would set them free. Having a cell phone let you keep in touch wherever you were, letting you do business on the beach, or on the golf course. It gave you security, because if your car broke down on the roadside, or you were in any kind of trouble anywhere, you had a lifeline with no line.

We were promised it would be communications heaven.

Whatever happened to that promise?

I'll tell you what happened. It came to pass -- exactly as advertised -- and it was only the beginning of the revolution.

But at what cost?

Today's cell phones are more than just yakking machines. They can bring you e-mail, voice mail and stock quotes. I wouldn't be surprised if, within a few years, they'll be able to project a holographic image of you back to the person at the other end, so your kid will be able to actually see mom or dad, the high-powered big shot, as you call to explain why you aren't home for the birthday party.

That'll set us free even more.

While it may not sound like it from the tone of this rant, I really like the freedom cell phones have wrought. As with most, if not all, technology, the machinery itself is benign; what worries me is how people are allowing themselves to get sucked into the cellular phone trap.

I'm not only talking about the boors of the world, the thoughtless oafs who allow their cell phones to ring in movie theaters -- or people who have a great deal of difficulty (if not a complete lack of skill at) driving a vehicle at the best of times; yet, who feel obliged to yak with one hand while inflicting themselves on our highways and byways with the other. No, cell phone etiquette and/or the lack of it is bad enough, but it's only part of my concern.

The thing that really concerns me is how, with our newfound freedom, we're actually losing our freedom, giving it up willingly as the technology allows others to take away from us our control of our own lives.

I was in a -- well, it was a lounge -- recently, and every few minutes, the cell phone belonging to a guy at a neighboring table would ring, and he'd jump up obediently and run out to the lobby, presumably because it was quieter or because if he got away from the sounds of clinking mugs and satellite TV no one would know he was in a bar.

In effect, the phone would say, "Jump," and he'd say, "How high?" Rather than empowering him, his cell phone had made him a slave. This poor guy, who probably got the phone because of its promise of freedom and flexibility, couldn't even keep away from the thing long enough to have a quick lunch or a beer.

That's empowering?

It was nearly as pathetic to see as those kids who wear their cell phones on their belts like six-shooters, then, perch them proudly on their school desk to ensure that all who pass know they have their own phone and are therefore Someone Very Special.

As a confirmed gadget freak, I applaud the technology and its wonderful potential. These technological tools really can set us free, and I won't even attempt to argue that life since the cell phone's introduction isn't as good as in the "good old days."

But there's one basic feature on every cell phone that many people haven't yet figured out how to use.

The "off" button.

The solution? Most cell phones can now offer voice mail -- and as much as I hate voice mail, this is one instance in which it's wholly appropriate.

People will understand if you don't answer your cell phone. You might be on the road, or in the bathroom. Or you might not be. No one needs to know -- it's your business. And that's the freedom that cellular telephones bring. So, shut the thing off once in a while, and let it take messages. Life's too short.

JWR contributor Jim Bray publishes TechnoFILE magazine, "the consumer's non-technical guide to today's technology." You may comment by clicking here.

06/14/00: For home-theater purists
06/12/00: Phone company reaches out, touches high-speed web access
05/30/00: Quantum Mechanics in Action
05/26/00: RCA Lyra personal digital player
05/22/00: XIRCOM helps take the "bored" out of board rooms
05/18/00: FRONTX offers friendly ports of entry


© 2000 Jim Bray.