Out of the Box?

July, 2004: I’m sitting on the dock of the bay in San Francisco: it’s a clear, wonderfully windy, decidedly bright, “chamber of commerce” Saturday afternoon.

There are sailboats on the water. Tourists and locals mix in the farmers’ market at the Embarcadero. People fishing from the dock routinely pull up their lines to replenish the bait eaten by the fish or washed away by the current.

It’s a glorious day. An off-line, out-of-the-box, great-to-be-away-from-the-office day. And then here, as elsewhere, phones ring.

The passing tourists, the folks fishing from the dock, the people selling wine, cheese and produce in the farmers’ market: at the sound of the digital tones, we all engage in a Pavlovian response, reaching for our phones.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that on this particular Saturday I am sitting on the dock of the SFO Bay with Syllabus contributors Phil Long and Frank Tansey. It’s the day before the summer Syllabus Conference: we have wandered over to the Embarcadero and then on to the dock following a tasty and leisurely dim sum experience at a nearby restaurant.

Our conversation wanders the landscape. It’s the easy-going banter of three guys at lunch, talking shop.

In the middle of our lunch conversation Phil happens to place his shiny, state-of-the-art, just-out-of-the-box phone/PDA on the table. Suddenly, I begin to feel a little like Gollum chasing The Ring. (Precious, precious!)

The problem, of course, is that I want to upgrade my 3-year-old PDA and 18-month-old cell phone. Both are functional. But I am growing tired of the “Batman” utility belt experience, finding myself laden with multiple digital devices. And this is not the first time in recent months that I have experienced PDA envy.

I want one device, and I want it NOW!

And yes, I want the phone/PDA to work the way I do, rather than have to learn to work the way device d'es.

Of course this lunch conversation about Phil’s marvelous multitasking phone (Precious! Precious!) occurs about 90 minutes before the loud digital tones from multiple cellular phones shatter the glorious ambience of our afternoon on the dock of the San Francisco Bay.

Alas, there is no escape. In a fitting fulfillment of the “be careful what you wish for” prophecy, is there any doubt that too many of us live in a (too) wired (and wireless) world?
The emerging world of 24/7 anytime/anywhere access can be wonderfully convenient. But I’m learning, painfully, that anytime, anywhere access can also be a digital siren song: there are times when I feel as if I am about to crash on the rocks!

Anytime/anywhere access g'es both ways, suggesting an implied social (digital?) contract. The compelling convenience of our electronic toys has become, for some of us, an electronic leash. There are times when I don’t want to answer the phone, respond to e-mail, or have you find me.

I had a preview of the electronic leash about eight years ago when my son, then thirteen, really wanted to get a pager. (Precious, Precious!) Why did he need a pager? Who needed to find him when he and his friends were in school for most of the day?

As good yuppie parents, we resisted. It seemed that a pager was little more than a fashion accessory for 13-year-old boys. But then we caved and he got the pager. And lo and behold, we found it worked better for us than for him. The unintended and unexpected benefit of his new fashion accessory was that the pager became an electronic leash: we could “find” him at any time and he was always on-call.

But I’m not sure I want to be on-call 24/7, do you? Five years ago I seemed to manage fairly well without e-mail on my belt; 15 years ago I was able to make it through the day using pay phones, rather than walking down the street talking to myself. The people who called or sent e-mail had reasonable expectations about response time. In contrast, many people (including me!) now expect an almost immediate response to voice and e-mail messages.

Is this a familiar feeling? Are you, like me, feeling trapped between digital rocks and hard places? I want that new, multitasking phone. (Precious. Precious!) I want wireless for my notebook in airports, hotel lobbies, coffee shops, and public spaces. I want, indeed have come to expect, the compelling convenience of our increasingly wired/wireless world.
Concurrently, I’ve come to realize that I don’t want anyone (let alone everyone!) to know that I am, in theory, accessible 24/7.

My July Saturday in San Francisco was an abrupt reminder that while I might enjoy a day on the dock of the bay, the box, like so many things over the last decade, has migrated from the physical to the digital.

Gimme shelter!?

An Endnote: In the Editor’s Note that opens the magazine, Mary Grush reports that this will be the last issue of Syllabus. Come October, Syllabus will become Campus Technology. My name is on the long list of those who applaud Mary for providing editorial leadership for Syllabus for the past several years. I’m particularly appreciative that Mary provided a place for the musings of this Digital Tweed in Syllabus. Mary will serve as editor of Campus Technology, but she deserves special notice for her role at Syllabus.

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