Escapees from a high-tech world

May 04, 1999|By Froma Harrop

THERE'S been a lot of talk lately about technological "haves" and "have-nots." The "haves" are middle- and upper-income Americans plugged into the Internet, cellular phones and all means of chip-driven equipment. The "have-nots" are the digitally deprived poor. Children in these computerless homes will be relegated to second-class citizenship in a high-tech economy.

But what about the "don't-have-to-haves." These are people whose lives are only loosely tied to batteries, electrical outlets and memory chips. And it's not because they can't afford the high-tech gear. It's because they don't have to have it. I envy those people.

The status symbol of the 2000s will be the absence of complicated and time-consuming digital equipment. Life for the fortunate few will be a leisurely drive along a tree-lined parkway. The rest of us hamsters will spend our years keeping up in the fast lane of the information highway.

This theory came to me a couple of months ago. I am walking down the main drag of Lake Worth, Fla. Camped at an outdoor table is a young man in pricey sports clothes. A cup of latte sits before him. At first I think, boy, this guy's got the Dolce Vita down pat.

Then I notice that he has a cell phone glued to his ear. The latte is getting cold. The foam is turning gray. He's just another gotta-do-business Yup on a cell phone. He cannot sit in the sunshine and enjoy his Java in peace.

This is no Marcello Mastroianni relaxing on the Via Veneto, thinking about what's for dinner. This is a high-tech gerbil, albeit with a tan. He is at the beck and call of anyone in possession of his number.

Long work week

The digital age could have brought us freedom, but has instead increased our servitude. Consider. Before the computer, workers did their jobs in an eight-hour day. The new technology enabled them to do the eight-hour job in only four hours. But did that lead to a shorter work week? No.

Instead of doing the jobs we used to do in half a day, we do two jobs in one day. And the more high-tech you are, the more overworked you become. Ever notice that employees in those hip software companies are allowed to wear jeans to the office but put in a 12-hour work day? Meanwhile, the old Arrow Collar Man, imprisoned in suit and tie, never missed the 5: 11 train going home.

And because the technology allows you to, in effect, do your work almost anywhere, you are doing work almost all the time. Home computers allow lawyers to continue checking their office e-mail all night.

The esquires may also find themselves beholden to a home fax. Thanks to the digital revolution, we can do two or three things at once. This is called multitasking. Indeed, it is possible to read e-mail, receive a fax, talk on the phone and watch television at the same time from the comfort of home.

Laptops, of course, allow people to keep working while on airplanes or on vacation. Makers of camping gear now sell backpacks for laptops. Restaurants offer Internet access.

When I signed up for digital cable TV service, I thought "oooh, this is going to save me time." With a simple push of a button on the remote, I can program my VCR to record something on TV.

In olden days, if I was out getting my hair cut when something good was on, well, I missed it. When VCRs came along, I recorded very few things because getting the machine to work was too painful an ordeal.

Thanks to the new technology, TV-watching efficiency took a giant leap. I found myself recording anything of even vague interest. Soon I started to spend many hours monitoring the important programs. Fortunately, I could also use the time to open mail, talk on the phone and file nails.

But that's not what I want. I want to be a don't-have-to-have. Those Americans who resist the demands of the technological revolution will become the leisured class of the next century. They will do their driving, eating and telephoning one activity at a time. These masters of the good life will not be owners of cell phones.

They'll be owners of everyone else's cell phone number.

Froma Harrop is a Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial writer and columnist.

Pub Date: 5/04/99

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