Wiring the World / THE NEW AGE OF GLOBAL TELECOMMUNICATIONS : ESSAY : Stop the Techno-Train! I Wanna Get Off


Seven years ago, I went to a hospital with my pregnant wife, Tia, so she could have a sonogram taken. We were nervous--and we became a lot more nervous when a nurse looked at the screen and said, "Uh oh."

The nurse went off into a corner to confer with two of her colleagues.

Finally, she came back.

"Is there something wrong?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said. "We had a problem with the computer."

I'm happy to say that the computer made a full recovery--and, oh yes, my wife had a healthy baby girl.

But the computer snafu shouldn't have surprised me.

I don't like computers. Computers don't like me. They don't do what I tell them to do. (OK, what I think I'm telling them to do.) I can't figure out the jargon. For instance, I don't understand Windows. I'd like to do Windows but I don't understand Windows.

Computers die on me at work all the time.

Invariably, when I phone and describe the incredible squiggles, blotches and flashing lights on my screen, the person in Computer Control pauses, then responds, "Hmmm. I've never heard of that--I'd better come out to your desk."

I remember one repairman who surveyed my screen, then tapped the "Cancel" key. Nothing happened. Then he tapped the key again. No change. Then he did something I found refreshingly human for a computer technician. He slammed his finger down on the "Cancel" key several times (again with no result, of course).

"I don't think it matters how hard you hit the key," I said, unselfishly sharing the one bit of knowledge I have attained over the last decade.

Soon, he gave up and a gurney was summoned to haul away still another electronic body to cyberheaven.

My concession to the technological revolution is using a telephone. Which reminds me. The day is coming, I understand, when I will have a personal telephone number and a pocket-sized "personal communicator" where I can be reached anywhere in the world. Does that mean I'll never not be home? There are times when I like being not at home.

Part of my dislike for computers and wireless phones is age, I know. Unwillingness to change. I'm 48. I guess I couldn't expect my 6-year-old daughter, Sarah--the one who jammed the hospital's equipment--to share my antipathy. However, I was briefly encouraged when I thought her kindergarten teacher said Sarah likes to kick the school's computer. It turned out Sarah likes to "boot" it. I had one home computer that I would occasionally "bounce" when it froze. (And I mean "bounce" in the conventional sense.) Yes, computers die on me at home too.

The blissful innocence of the typewriter era feels so long removed. Back then, one of my favorite movie scenes occurred in "Take the Money and Run," when inept criminal Virgil Starkwell (Woody Allen) is asked by a job interviewer if he has ever operated a computer. (Note to young readers: This was a very funny question to ask in 1969.)

Starkwell replies with a straight face, "Yes." And then, to add to the hilarity, he piles on another lie: "My aunt has one."

These days, of course, nearly everybody's aunt owns one. I wonder if anyone would laugh at the scene today. I'd probably sob.

The technological revolution is here. And I feel as though I'm trudging down a shoulder of the information superhighway, pushing a shopping cart filled with old newspaper clippings. I'm in the black hole of cyberspace.

Let's face it: I'm off-line.

The only place I do any hacking is on a tennis court.

I've never had any interest in CD-ROM--even after discovering that it's not the name of a rap singer. I don't need an encyclopedia stored in a computer. I have one gathered in books (remember them?). I know a person can now hit a search key to find a particular subject in a computerized store of knowledge. I like to thumb through my books. I like holding them. I like being diverted from my search by unrelated articles. I like being on the information surface street.

Then there's the mobility factor.

As my colleague Thomas B. Rosenstiel points out in an article for this section, it is now possible, while sitting in the stands at a ballgame, to phone the office, check for E-mail, scan the Internet and make a few stock purchases.

But doesn't that defeat the purpose of going to a ballgame? Especially during working hours (the only time I ever go). Who wants to call the boss? I want to get away from it all. Watch some highly skilled individuals perform with a bat, ball and glove. In the flesh. You know, real reality?

Nor would I be interested in swapping messages with some faceless password on the Internet while sitting in a ballpark. If I want to chat, I'll talk to the guy sitting next to me. I like seeing the person I talk to. The facial expressions. The gestures. And hearing his voice. Call me strange. But I like human voices.

Already technology has given the world the opportunity of hearing personal telephones ring in such places as restaurants, ballparks and theaters. I think secondhand telephone ringing is unhealthy. I want it outlawed.

While I'm at it, I'd also like to do away with one of the worst inventions of all time--the car phone. That's the gizmo that enables the guy in the BMW to chat with someone on the other side of town while crawling along at 49 m.p.h. on the freeway. No one knows why, but it is apparently impossible for a car-phone user to exceed 49 m.p.h. on the freeway. And if he must make a lane change? Well, he just slides across without warning. You know why? Signaling is out of the question because he doesn't have a spare hand.

It'll really get interesting when drivers begin installing video phones.

There's no doubt about it. I'm a technophobe.

Hey, I just checked my computer's spell-check system. It doesn't recognize the word technophobe . Why am I not surprised?

Download me.

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