Stay out of touch

William Safire

November 03, 1993|By William Safire

WE SEE wireless as fiber to the person," says the boss of Bell Atlantic.

He is not talking of moral fiber, which each person needs. This waver of the future, steering his company into some supercolliding communications combine, speaks of optical fiber, a wire capable of transmitting zillions of unwanted messages into my home -- and interactively, yet, which means I would soon have the capability of, and therefore the responsibility for, answering them all.

By using the analogy of "fiber to the person," he is saying that the new wireless technology will soon offer limitless channels direct to the human being.

As communications groupies marry cellular telephony to the computer, they intend to make it possible for each of us to be reachable by anybody on earth at any time, in any place, with all the data currently known to humankind.

Celluluddites like me reject this hand-held offer out of hand. You know those crazies dressed in sandwich boards claiming to be manipulated by radio waves from alien civilizations? Maybe they're not so crazy.

I have fended off the threat of intrusive wireless communication almost from its inception. At the Moscow summit in 1972, President Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, introduced us to the new "beeperphone."

Through this amazing paging device, worn on the hip, the nation's chief executive could instantly track down any of his score of assistants anywhere in the capital of the rival superpower at any moment.

Being on the end of an electronic leash did not appeal to me; indeed, its big-brother aspect struck me as more representative of the Soviet society than our own, though that was not the time or place to examine the ideological irony. How could one get off this ukase without challenging the authority of a White House enamored with the technology of instantaneous staff control?

I took Mr. Haldeman aside and explained that when I tested the new remote paging device, which was a great example of American ingenuity and technological leadership, its sudden beeping caused me an embarrassing urinary urgency. (A vulgarism made the point more vivid.)

He knew I was fibbing but appreciated my nonconfrontational approach. All staff members would comply with the beeperphone requirement at all times, he directed, "except Safire, who has a medical excuse." Thus I was able to wander around Moscow, checking in at times to see if the president needed a fresh formulation of detente, a free man.

Through the years, despite the popularity of beepers and the development of the portable cellular phone, I have continued to resist unrestrained reachability. No phone rings in my car. If you want to reach me in the bathroom, you have to pound on the door and holler.

Now consider the challenge of an instrument, neither bulky nor expensive, that the communications industry persists in calling a "personal digital assistant" despite its double meaning.

It walks with you, talks with you, takes messages, computes critical paths, flashes an order to a deli for a turkey-tongue combo hold the mayo and can, if you have the codes, trigger nuclear war.

Frisk me all you like, you'll never find one. Although pundits pride themselves on being in touch, there is no law requiring us to be constantly or instantly in touch. Indeed, the far greater need is to be occasionally, blessedly out of touch.

The hard-celling digitechies who walk down the street talking into their hands, or sit in restaurants whispering up their sleeves, try to intimidate us with their lingo. But two can play at that:

I am not daydreaming; I am experimenting with virtual unreality. I am not a hermit; I am participating in a stand-alone environment. You say I revel in being an ink-stained wretch in multimedia world? I say my deviated-Septium chip makes me uniquely unimedia-capable.

Think again about the rush to total intouchedness. The telecommunications that produced telemarketing can produce telefugitives. No slack can be cut in the wireless wire; a society with no place to hide produces people with no secrets worth keeping and individuals with no minds of their own.

The invasion of your private space by the fiber-to-the-person futurians is something for you to worry about, dear reader. They won't get me; I have a medical excuse.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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