Soon, you, too, will be caught up in the Web

Click: User-friendly? The future techno-gizmos will be downright chummy.

January 13, 2000|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

It's official: There's nowhere to hide from the Internet.

The gargantuan AOL/Time Warner merger will allow the tentacles of technology to encircle the globe, trapping us all. Everything from Gwyneth Paltrow's new movie to CNN's broadcasts from Baghdad to People magazine's breathless coverage of Prince William's dates will be linked to computers everywhere in some complicated, mysterious way.

Forget about clicking on the television or browsing at the magazine rack. You'll be light-years behind the rest of the world, information-wise.

So what will become of those people who can't tell a Steve Case from a Bill Gates -- who, gasp, may not even own a computer? Will they go the way of the dinosaur?

Actually, they can take solace in this unlikely thought: VCR clocks.

Remember those awful blinking clocks that we could never program, so they perpetually flashed 12: 00-12: 00-12: 00 in a kind of electronic Chinese water torture?

If you've purchased a new VCR recently, you might have noticed something. The clocks now set themselves.

There's a lesson here.

"Each new wave of technology captures a new segment of the market," says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster for the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif.

In other words, as devices are refined and improved, they become easier to use for the technologically impaired. The wary and the overwhelmed are wooed by simpler, friendlier products.

It makes sense: Most of us probably wouldn't have been too eager to fly aboard the Wright brothers' untested airplane. Today, jet travel is commonplace.

For those still ambivalent about the electronic revolution, a glimpse at history might prove reassuring. Around the turn of the 19th century, people were stupefied by the inventions that kept rolling out: Light bulbs, telephones, automobiles.

"Some people called it `The Age of Wonders,'" says Doron Weber, a program director for the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which seeks to increase public understanding of technology. "That was a revolution as well."

History will repeat itself, the experts promise. After all, we have the Internet gurus exactly where we want them: They need us. Well, they need our money. To get it, they've got to make their stuff so simple, compelling and cheap that we'll soon be hopping aboard the high-tech express, leaving our analog phones and pocket calculators in the dust.

"There's a big market for someone to create a really dumb device you can use to access the Web," points out Tim Horgan, a vice president of technology for CIO magazine, which studies technology-related business issues.

But manufacturers are going to make our lives even easier than that.

In store for us, Saffo says, are refrigerators featuring flat screens that flash news updates, provide cooking tips, and serve as a family's message center; washing machines that call the repairman before breaking down; and cheap, disposable cell phones that can alert police to your precise location, should you dial 911.

Weber points out that the new devices won't necessarily edge out existing media. After all, people once worried that the radio would replace newspapers, and that television would gut the motion picture industry's profits. There will still be a place for that television clicker and magazine rack.

So those still scrambling to master the basics of e-mail shouldn't panic. There's no need to rush to catch up with each new rapidly unfolding technological innovation. Eventually, things will get easier.

Which leads to a more significant point: Do we really need to be connected to Gwyneth/Wolf Blitzer/Prince William 24 hours a day?

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