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The Cell Phone Calls

By Kai Staats MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jul 28, 2004 8:27 AM PT

This is the first of many discussions built upon my observation of my own behavior and that of those around me as my generation and the next move into a very near future of hyperinterconnection.

The Cell Phone Calls

My immediate writing will be concerned with how we as human animals offset our natural instinct, intuition and independence with a reliance on technology, if not to make a decision for us, then to enable connection to another human or group of humans.

To contrast this, and to look at both sides of the equation, I will also explore, in subsequent columns, the incredible possibilities of interconnection. This interconnection even now enables, for instance, multiple generations spread across vast distance to remain in contact; or the common citizen to capture via digital photo and cell-phone uplink a public uprising, protest and associated military response; or for companies to provide 24/7 tech support to customers 10,000 miles away.

Freedom and Flexibility

My latest lesson in the connection between humans and technology came during the first week of July, when I completed a 4,380-mile road trip from Loveland, Colorado, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I rock climbed and camped in the Pines. The next day I arrived in Phoenix two hours before the start of a 48-hour film challenge that I codirected with my brother. The following week found me in the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) and countless meetings from morning until night.

I headed home with a travel companion. We ventured to Portola State Park, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Lehman Caves in New Mexico, a quick walk on the shore of a dry lake bed (a few hours south of Salt Lake City), where the hot grey/green clay oozed between and over barefoot toes. Finally an evening and night in Arches National Park, Utah, before crossing the Rockies on I-70 the following and final day.

This two-week venture, like more than a dozen before it and many more to come, was a business trip. This means 8 to 12 hours a day with e-mail, phone calls, meetings and remote management of my company. During these extended journeys, it is imperative that I remain connected to my team and my customers in order to keep things running smoothly. The climbing, camping, even the 48-hour film challenge keep me running smoothly, or I would break down far faster than would my company without sales or my Subaru without oil.

My nontraditional means of travel is an attempt at balance, compensation for long days and lack of regular weekends. More importantly, it is a reminder of who I am. But with this thought in my mind, I noticed something on this particular trip that caught me off guard, something I am not pleased to have discovered.

Despite the expressed freedom that I personally enjoy, for the flexibility and mobility that millions of people now have with cellular phones, high-speed internet connections and virtual private networks (VPNs) into their home offices, even with major improvements made to video conferencing -- something doesn't feel right to me.

Lack of Connectivity

As I crossed the wonderful distance between Reno and Wells, Nevada, a truckstop town at the intersection of I-80 and Highway 93, the northern entrance to a splendid high-desert valley bordered by snow fields on 10,000-foot peaks, I looked down to the cupholder between the two front seats that held my cell phone (used only during road trips). I felt the overwhelming urge to check voice mail, to call someone -- anyone.

The anxiety that drove this sensation was similar to that which people must experience when exiting an airplane, restaurant, or movie theater: the impulse to immediately check voice messages. Perhaps this is the same, underlying reason people put their cell on standby -- as opposed to just turning the thing off -- even though they are not able to answer.

It was Saturday. No one was in the office. None of my customers would expect a call, even if they were working. While there seemed to be no reason for it, the nearly overwhelming desire persisted. I realized then, in that moment, I was suffering from lack of connectivity.

My copilot grabbed her cell to call her family and check in, and that was when I found my own cell in my hands, the power on, my fingers ritualistically navigating through the phone book to my parents back in Phoenix -- to check in.

Humans and Technology

As we maintained a cruise-controlled velocity of about 87 miles per hour in a place vast and wonderfully devoid of humans, I could not help but consider the time required, just two or three generations ago, to cross this same space. And I contemplated the solitude that one would have experienced in the days, the weeks that were required in comparison to our speedy traverse in mere hours. Without CB, cell phone, pager, satellite phone, and certainly without AAA-assured roadside assistance, these individuals on foot, horseback or wagon were far more isolated and, therefore, made truly independent decisions.

In years past, I have soloed in Denali National Park, Alaska, for two weeks among the rock marmot and grizzly; in the Saguaro Desert of the Superstitions for days on end, and more recently ventured to Mexico and the Caribbean without even hearing a phone ring let alone using one for weeks.

I had been without communication with family or coworkers for less than 24 hours but was feeling that low-level anxiety, the kind that starts in the abdomen and creeps into the chest and upper arms. When I became aware of the experience, when I realized what was driving me to call, I was shocked to discover -- I had been reprogrammed. And I was my own hacker.

But for the conclusion to this story, watch for my column next Wednesday here on MacNewsWorld.


Kai Staats, a MacNewsWorld columnist, is the cofounder and CEO of Terra Soft Solutions, developer of Yellow Dog Linux for PowerPC.


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