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Insights: Culture—The Trouble with Technology

Wireless gadgets may be a godsend, but they're still ruining summer
| By Catherine Greenman | From Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

I remember, not long ago, how when people left for vacation or even for the weekend, they seemed to disappear. Their personal lives had a certain mystique because I didn't necessarily know where they were or what they were doing.  

Now, more often than not, it seems that real vacations, where people disappear from the goings-on of the office for a week or more, are no longer acceptable. I fell victim to this myself.  

Last summer, I went on vacation with my family to Long Island. During a particularly hot Saturday morning, I went inside the house to have a cold drink and take a break from the sun. As I stepped inside the screen door, my eyes involuntarily darted to my laptop on a desk in the corner of the room. Although its lid was down and it was turned off, I could still sense it breathing, Grendel-like, as it sucked in e-mail after e-mail, beckoning me to open it up and check. I resisted, but only for the moment.  

Out on the porch, my husband paced back and forth in his bathing suit with his cell phone (our landline phone was busy receiving the fax someone was sending him). He scrolled through all the voicemail he hadn't had a chance to listen to during the week, answering the ones that couldn't go unanswered. "You can reach me on my cell today, otherwise I'll give you a call when we're back in the city," he lobbed back, evening the score.  

We had been nestled away at our beach "escape" for all of 13 hours. As I waited for him to get off the phone so that we could talk about what to do for lunch, my mind started conjuring up memories of Ina's Shangri-La, an old inn in the Catskills that my parents took my brother and me to once or twice every summer. A woman who had previously been our nanny owned it, and it had wide, shady porches, huge trees with leaves that dipped into the windows, and Hoppety Hops for my brother and me to get around on the sprawling, perfectly mowed lawn. It also had one rotary dial phone, which was shared not only by the guests, but also by the rest of the houses on the lake.  

On the heels of wistful pangs for my lost childhood followed an alarming question: could our careers survive a weekend of being stranded at Ina's Shangri-La? How did my parents get by without touching base or dialing up and still have jobs come Monday?  

As anyone who's gotten stuck waiting for a call at the office while the rest of the weekend bag-slinging world breezes out the door can attest, wireless technology offers us the freedom to work while in transit and away from the office, virtually guilt free. The ability to call a client or a coworker while walking, taxiing or driving is a convenience many of us now wonder how we ever lived without. And the fact that more Americans are using wireless phones--the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association says the number of wireless subscribers totaled 86.1 million in 1999, up 24 percent from 1998--also means that more people are reachable outside of the office than ever before.  

The convenience of wireless phones is quickly extending towards wireless e-mail and Internet access. We already have a myriad of ways to check e-mail when we are on the go, whether it's with a two-way pager that can send and receive text messages, a handheld computer like the Palm or RIM Blackberry, or a laptop with a wireless modem.  

If you don't yet have a dedicated device for wireless e-mail access, chances are you will soon. Between now and the end of the year, major wireless manufacturers, including Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, will be marketing phones with built-in Internet connectivity. By 2002, says the technology research firm IDC, people who use wireless devices for Internet and e-mail access will outnumber those who plug in and log on at their computers.  

All of this flexibility is, and will continue to be, great for our work lives. Being always reachable by phone or e-mail means we can work anywhere, anytime. But as evidenced by my host at a recent cocktail party who scurried into the bedroom and shut the door to answer a page, the technology that has sprung us from the office and untethered us from our desks has also trapped us.  

How are all these work interludes--the 15-minute phone calls here, the five-minute pages there--affecting our psyches? Can we ever really focus on what's in front of us, with some wireless gadget or another vibrating in our pockets?  

I don't have wireless e-mail (yet) but I can think of countless times when my cell phone has been both an indulgence and a godsend. When we're playing Scrabble on the beach, for example, I enlist my father, a crossword puzzle writer with a huge stash of dictionaries, to be our remote word judge.  

I scream out his verdict if it's in my favor, and sometimes have to pass the phone around so that people can hear it for themselves (they don't always believe me). We could just as well work on an honor system, where more than one person has to know the word, but we call my father because we can, and because it's more fun.  

And there was the time last summer when we passed what looked like our friend's car, stranded on the Long Island Expressway. We immediately called her cell phone and learned that she'd hiked with her dog to the next gas station. We turned around at the next exit and went back to pick her up, feeling like high-tech SWAT commandos. Within 10 minutes, she was in our car, on her way home.  

But there's a huge price for the small luxuries and feats of heroism that being connected allow. The ability to work also creates the obligation to work, whether we're conscious of it or not. Sure you can turn the stuff off, just like you can disconnect a regular phone. But whether you're napping, swimming or strolling on the beach, or squeezing zucchini at a roadside stand, that incoming voicemail or urgent e-mail message is just a push-button away. For me, just one look at that charging laptop with the little flashing green light puts the Monday morning right back in me.  

Voicemail messages will mention the fact that, although a person is out of the office for a few days, he or she will be checking in for messages. Some will even leave their cell phone numbers in the event of an emergency. Who are we? The babysitter?   A friend of mine who runs a consulting business (and who wears an armor of pager, cell phone and handheld personal digital assistant even when he drives to town for bagels) told me that when he was first starting out, his fantasy of true success was that the people he worked with would consider him indispensable to the business. But as communication technology has become so prevalent, that fantasy died as predictably as his cell phone batteries. His revised version now consists of the opposite: having the ability to delegate responsibility so well that his pager, along with the rest of his work life, fades into the background, at least for a day or two.  

As for me, I'm hoping that the less immediate pace of wireless e-mail catches on and becomes more relied on than phones and pagers. I'm encouraged by the possibility that people are starting to take control of their reachability through the use of automated e-mail messages. The other day I e-mailed an editor about a story and got a speedy reply, which he'd obviously programmed before he left for a full-fledged, honest-to-goodness vacation. The e-mail I got back said, "I've received your message, but will be away until Monday the 24th on a sailing trip. I will reply in full when I return." That note was electronic music to my ears.  

Catherine Greenman covers technology for The New York Times.