Gizmos increasingly rule our lives |

Gizmos increasingly rule our lives

Alan Braunholtz

One of my favorite sights in Denver is the cheerful supermarket trolley wrangler and his beat up pickup. This guy cruises the neighborhood to round up all the stray trolleys discarded in the gutter. It’s a niche job, and he looks like a happy “in his own niche” type of person.

This must be a large problem in cities where people still live close enough to walk to the shops. So much so that I saw an interesting new trolley gizmo last week. A bright yellow line now surrounds the supermarket with signs warning you not to take the trolley over this line, as the wheels will lock up. Of course, I had to test it. Sure enough, two feet after the line a hair drier shaped-box attached above a wheel whirred and clicked into action, freezing the wheel up. Interestingly, it didn’t release when dragged back into the parking lot. Just to be sure, I tried this several times until chased off by a man whose job was probably to mechanically unlock and reset the wheels.

“Cool,” I thought, instinctively impressed by the new technology of a “thinking” trolley and then sad as the trolley wrangler will need a new niche. It also doesn’t say much for the decency of people that the supermarket has to install this technology to save its carts. Maybe our behavior will depend more and more on external, rather than internal, limits with technology both imposing and removing them.

Cell phone etiquette is an ongoing struggle. In theory, a cell phone should set us free to live our lives as planned, knowing that if an emergency arises we will be available to deal with it. In practice, everything we want becomes an emergency and we replace planning and forethought with the crutch of a cell phone or we’re simply unable to resist the siren call of constant communication. Pagers, cell phones, laptops, e-mail tie us to our work all the time now. It’s a control thing, and our work controls more of our lives than ever before, whether it needs to or not.

Technology must be seductive. Why else would we abruptly stop a person-to-person conservation to answer a trilling gizmo? It’s not only rude but devoid of the smiles, raised eyebrows and biological interaction, less satisfying. With voice mail and messaging, there is no need to pick up every call, but we still often do. We assign the message coming through the current whizbang medium a stature it doesn’t necessarily deserve.

Maybe we’ll develop immunity to these instant demands as the novelty fades away. It’ll become like mail; you collect it when you can and open it when you want.

Engineers in Japan created a wall covering that blocks all cell phone signals. Restaurants, cinemas and theaters expressed interest before the fire department complained. It’d block their radio signals, too.

Under a European Union directive, mobile phone networks now have to provide emergency services with information on any phone’s location. By triangulating off cell towers or satellites, they expect to get an automatic reading down to 50 yards, if your phone is turned on. Very useful for that “I’m being abducted,” “I’m lost,” or “Mommy crashed the car” call.

In the U.S. a similar law will be in effect by 2005. On top of the safety issue, there are already some blossoming commercial applications. Need to find the nearest ATM or get in touch with the closest taxi? Ask your phone. In some countries, parents can subscribe to a service and check where their children or at least their phones are.

If junior really wants to blow off his study group and go hot rodding at the beach, he can always turn the phone off, unless Daddy’s put a “black box” in his car. Most new cars contain a recorder that notes the speed, braking, etc., for short periods of time. These can be subpoenaed after an accident.

Parents in California are buying more complex ones that record a lot more detail. Pedal to the metal acceleration, wheel-locking braking, cornering forces, top speed and a GPS. This info is stored and can be downloaded to a computer. If Big Brother isn’t watching you, Daddy certainly wants to.

Our behavior changes with what we think can get away with. I don’t think we’re any more or less moral than before. It’s the oversight that’s changing.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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