`There's nowhere to escape'

Technology: With more sophisticated hand-held computers, cell phones and pagers, many people are taking the office - and the home - with them.

March 03, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Steven Fink was having lunch one day with a kindred spirit -- another aficionado of the Palm Pilot digital organizer -- when the two men lined up their Palm Pilots side by side.

With a click, one Palm Pilot sent an infrared beam to the other, transferring a computer program that would allow Fink to "draw" and save pictures in his Palm Pilot.

Now, when people ask about the new sanctuary and auditorium being planned for Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore, where Fink is a rabbi, he doesn't have to draw a sketch on a napkin. He whips out his Palm Pilot, which also contains all of Fink's appointments, phone numbers, a Hebrew calendar and the weekly prayers for the coming year.

"It's crucial to our everyday work," said Fink, who also wields a cellular phone and a pager as he tends to the business of his temple.

As Silicon Valley's engineers cram more computer data and functions into smaller packages, today's workers embody the once-futuristic image of Dick Tracy and his wristwatch radio.

More portable work

Gadgets the size of a thick credit card can carry hundreds of names, numbers and addresses, years of appointments, to-do lists, memos and an alarm clock. And mini-computers the size of a bread slice can house a small library of information. In short, the PC has become portable.

With the help of such tools, the workplace has spilled beyond the office and factory walls and into the world all around. We're still waiting to see how that helps -- or harms -- our lives. But examples of the gadgetization of the working world abound:

Restaurants and movie theaters routinely ask people to turn off their cellular telephones and pagers.

Some patrons take their cell phones, sheathed in plastic, into the showers at the Downtown Athletic Club.

Baltimore-Washington International Airport's lost-and-found boxes have been filling up in the past year with cell phones, pagers, Palm Pilots and laptop computers.

Shelved in the evidence room at the Baltimore Police Department are increasing numbers of laptops, cell phones and pagers, which have become tools of the city's drug trade.

Farmers use cell phones to check commodity prices while plowing their fields.

Makers of these products, and their fans, say the obvious benefit is increased productivity and time management. But the blurring of lines between work and home has its ramifications.

Susan Narveson sat Wednesday afternoon at BWI awaiting an afternoon flight back to Phoenix, where she is director of the police department forensics laboratory. A cell phone by her side, she tapped into a laptop computer.

"I don't go anywhere without it," she said. "It's like a security blanket."

But she's begun to see the downside to her reliance on technology. During a golf trip with her husband last year, she kept plugging in her laptop and checking e-mail. She once panicked after accidentally disabling her cell phone. She is always "page-able."

"There's nowhere to escape anymore," she said. "It's sad, but that's the way it is."

A growing trend

And yet, more people are electronically tethering themselves to the office.

As the historic bull stock market heads into its 10th year, salaries and earnings are up, personal savings are down and consumer spending has soared. Much of that spending is on electronic and computer equipment. International Data Corp. says 9 million Americans owned hand-held electronic devices last year; by 2003, the number is expected to reach 35 million.

The biggest names in the computer industry are involved, such as IBM, America Online and Microsoft, which plans to introduce a new line of "pocket PCs" this spring.

Cell phones are evolving into all-purpose communications systems, with voice mail, address books and, on the horizon, access to e-mail. Pagers can check stock market prices and weather. And PDAs, personal digital assistants -- led by the Palm Pilot, which emerged in 1996 and has seen sales rise 65 percent a year -- put the Internet in the palm of your hand.

Impact debated

Stanford University researchers recently warned that the Internet was making us lonely, causing some people to spend less time with their family and friends.

But Patrick Callanin, an analyst with Forrester Research, an independent research firm specializing in technology in Cambridge, Mass., said societal effects of electronic gadgets are exaggerated. He said those obsessed with gadgets -- like himself -- are the same people who used to take stacks of papers from the office to work on at home.

"There are a lot of Luddites out there who say technology is ruining civilization. But it's a personal choice," he said. "You can always turn off the pager or cell phone."

And when technology does intrude on our personal lives, "it's not caused by the gizmos, it's enabled by them. So we can't blame the technology, we can only blame ourselves," he said.

Rabbi Fink sees the good and the bad sides of the digitization of his life. With his Palm Pilot, he can electronically synchronize his appointment calendar with his computers at home and the office, so his wife and staff know where he is at all times. He likes being accessible.

"But it makes me much busier than I normally would be. There's much less down time. There's never a day off," he said. "Sometimes you resent that because that's important time, that's private time."

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