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”
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
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
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.
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.