Showing posts with label Mainebiz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mainebiz. Show all posts

Monday, August 20, 2001

My digital encumbrances, myself

Published in Mainebiz

When it comes to digital technology, I consider myself a pretty basic gadget guy. I can honestly say I’m not some overly wired freak who walks around all day with a headset on, gesticulating wildly as I talk to the air.

Though I do have four eyes, I don’t wear a small computer monitor on my glasses, the better to read my e-mail at one-inch range. And what’s up with those guys — why are they always guys? — who wear digital headcams so you can see what they’re doing just by looking at their websites? Thanks, but no thanks.

I may not be a freak, but I am nevertheless digitally encumbered. Don’t get me wrong — all the gadgets are great, and it’s amazing and wonderful to be able to communicate with so many people so many different ways, and so quickly.

Eight years ago, when I first spent extended time overseas, I remember being thrilled as I coordinated travel plans across the Atlantic in a six-message e-mail exchange lasting only 15 minutes. Now we don’t even think twice about such an exchange. Technology is everywhere, and it’s moving “at the speed of business,” as at least one company’s ad campaign says.

But here’s the rub: Do I always need to be moving that fast? Is my on-the-job productivity really heightened that much by being more or less constantly plugged in, or does it just allow me to be more inefficient?

My digital encumbrances, after all, are varied and wondrous: laptop, personal digital assistant (PDA), Internet-capable mobile phone, a gaggle of cords and adapters and other gizmos to allow everything to talk to each other and that let me take my encumbrances on the road and overseas.

I’m an avowed tech lover, but even I have come to the realization that this kind of connectivity must have a limit.

I realize this is not a new idea; doomsayers have been wringing their hands over the consequences, real and imagined, of digital encumbrance for a decade or more. But with the gadgets getting smaller, cheaper, sexier and more powerful — witness the advent of wirelessness and the number of people these days who can’t seem to get behind the wheel of an SUV without sparking up the mobile phone — it’s as much of an issue as ever, especially for business people for whom the notion of “staying connected” is as important as maintaining a pulse.

The only way we’re going to nip the connectivity bug in the bud is by just saying no: turning off the pager when we go out to dinner, turning off the cell phone at the kids’ Little League game, going for more than five minutes between e-mail checks. It’s fair to say that somebody somewhere will want to check their e-mail while reading a wireless newspaper that can also receive faxes, but I am not that person.

Thus, my new tech credo: Enough is enough. Enough with 24/7/365 connectedness. Enough with the fetishes over size and speed. (Though a laptop that moves at 1 GHz would be so sweet!) Technology is not an end unto itself but rather a tool. I am my own man. I am not my digital encumbrances.

At least, I don’t think I am.

Getting a big digital grip
As someone running his own small business — I’m a freelance writer — I find I’m constantly evaluating the state of the gadgets I have with me. Do I need to have my phone on during lunch with a friend? Do I keep the to-do alarm on my handheld on or off if I’m in a meeting? Does an
overnight trip somewhere require the laptop, or can I make do with the handheld and its keyboard? We’d like to think such questions have to do with productivity, but what they’re really about is being connected — and that’s not the same as being productive.

Still, we insist on missing the distinction and focusing, as often as not, on the pain our gizmos cause us. More and more of us are sporting a wider array of digital gadgetry on our belts, after all, and we all spout the same vacuous platitudes at business gatherings and parties. “I really
hate being in a movie theater/play/concert/yoga class and hearing somebody’s phone ring,” we complain. “My Palm Pilot would be great, if only I remembered to bring it with me,” we lament.
We’re all starting to get sick. Our devices are becoming the focus of our attention, rather than tools to make our ideas become reality.

Time, in other words, for all of us connected types to get a big collective grip.

If I can learn from my digital missteps, anybody can. I’m 27, I run my business out of my apartment in Portland, and I began dabbling in technology in sixth grade, when my parents bought a 128KB color computer, the IBM PCjr. (Now I carry 32 times more memory and lots more processor power in a little handheld computer clipped onto my belt.) Later on I became a multimedia software developer, but I changed careers because I got tired of doing cool stuff with computers just because I knew how. I’m quite at ease with the technology itself, but I’m not so
sure about its effect on my productivity.

I’ve got early-stage connectivitis, true, but I’m trying to boost my immune system with powerful doses of perspective.

As a small business, I don’t have a lot of spare cash to blow on stuff that makes me look cool but doesn’t actually work. As a frequent traveler, I need things that are light, easy to use and, above all, reliable. Like any smart buyer, I check things out before I buy, and weigh the pros, cons and costs of a purchase. But there are a few things I wish somebody had told me before I dropped a couple of hundred bucks on a handheld personal digital assistant, or signed on for a mobile phone plan.

None of these things, for starters, are actually as small as they seem. Most of them need something else to work properly: batteries, a power cord, a CD drive, and so on. There are external keyboards and modems for handhelds that increase the space and weight requirements significantly. No matter your destination, you have to pack up all your gear, get it in the car or taxi or airplane or rickshaw, and then take it all out of the case and set it up again. As you arrive at the meeting, your focus is not on what you’re going to say, but on whether the equipment will work the way it did when you tested it the day before. So it goes when you’ve got a case of connectivitis.

Part of me insists on thinking that I should have known all this before I began acquiring gadgets — on the other hand, how could I have known about connectivitis before I became connected?

Beware the slippery slope
I own a fair number of these tools myself [see “He’s gotta have it” on previous page], and I’m learning that each has its place. They allow me to work where I need to, when I need to. But I’ve learned that I only need to carry my equipment when I’m actually going to work on it.

During work time, I can maximize my productivity and even enjoy it — at least, sometimes. Try writing your next project or progress report under a tree in a park, or on the beach — it may not make the work go any faster, but it will certainly be more enjoyable than doing it in some fluorescent-lit cubicle.

Aside from allowing me to work in the great outdoors — Can you honestly say you’ve used your encumbrances to work in the great outdoors? If not, why? — the gear has more than earned its keep on numerous occasions. I was recently in the middle of a phone interview and realized
I needed additional background on a company. My laptop was on, connected to the Internet and sitting right in front of me. Without the other person knowing, I hit a couple of websites and found what I needed, which meant I was able to ask a series of follow-up questions I’d have
missed otherwise.

A plus of my PDA and phone is that they combine well, and they allow me to carry less and still do most of what I could with a laptop. Does this mean that I carry them absolutely everywhere? No. While I do drag my phone around most places, I’ve learned over time when I will need
my PDA and I leave it at home the rest of the time.

There are add-ons for these gadgets, which can make life — and my work life — even easier. PDAs have the widest array of extras, though mobile phones have Internet connectivity now, and even little attachable cloth keyboards you can roll up and stick in your pocket. My back-up modules have saved my PDA data many times, when batteries have died or I’ve deleted the wrong thing from my handheld’s memory.

But the pluses, as I’ve learned the hard way, make for a slippery slope. You become more dependent on the gear and on the gadgets they attach to. Your belt becomes more cluttered, and
your pockets fill with spare batteries.

For some folks this is a fashion statement as well as a professional connectivity issue. Not only do they have all the gear, but it’s top-of-the-line and brand-new and they’re awfully pleased with themselves as a result. I say they’re sick.

I need a phone and a PDA and sometimes a laptop. Do I also need a pager? A second phone? A fax machine in my car? No, no and no, and I’m hard-pressed to imagine anyone who does. I’ve known some doctors to wear two pagers — their own and an “on-call” beeper that rotates from person to person as shifts change — but that’s as far as I can conceive of going. I guess if the issue comes down to life and death, I’m willing to concede a little.

We’re gonna make it after all
After all, everyone — doctors, stock brokers, lawyers, bike messengers, even journalists — needs time away from the job. Without time away, connectivitis takes its terminal form, whereupon the fun stops and productivity slams to a halt. We all know that feeling; as a small business person, my work already has a tendency to creep over the edges of my personal life. Right now, for example, it’s almost 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Where am I? Sitting here typing.

Typing, yes, but typing in the knowledge that recovery is close at hand. Sometimes I need to turn the computer off, not answer the phone, and put down the handheld — and I’m OK with that.

Even so, technological developments are working hard to prevent me from being OK with that. I do think it would be great to get a remotely updated plastic newspaper; I wouldn’t have to pitch so many trees into the recycling bin. But what always comes with new technological capabilities is the promise — no, make that more of a threat — that I need to be even more productive than I already am.

Soon after I get one of those wireless newspapers, somebody’s going to try to sell me a “solution” that will allow me to get my e-mail on it, too. I don’t want that. If I’m reading the newspaper, I’m reading the newspaper. When I want to stop and check my e-mail, I will.

I value my work a great deal, and my quest for perspective is fueled in large part by wanting to do it better and more efficiently. Technology can be a big help, but it can also be a powerful agent for distraction, lack of productivity and stress. If I’m always being distracted, what takes most of my attention is not what’s most important, but what’s making the most noise.

Set your limits and stick to them. You don’t need to be rigid about this; expand them when circumstances warrant. Be sure to take your anti-connectivitis supplements every day: family, friends, time outdoors, time with a book. If you find yourself facing a moment of weakness,
think of a line from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme song: “You’re gonna
make it after all.”

And to think Mary Richards actually made it without the help of a laptop or a PDA. Amazing.

He’s gotta have it
The economics, psychology and cool of digital encumbrance: our correspondent’s arsenal of gear
(batteries not included)

Gear: Apple Powerbook G3, 233MHz
Outlay: $2500
Utility: *****
Cool factor: ***
Bottom line: Laptops keep getting cooler and more powerful. Who needs a desktop machine anymore? Grab a titanium-clad power machine and compute anywhere.

Personal digital assistant
Gear: Handspring Visor, Deluxe, $200; Handspring Visor 56K modem, $90 Landware GoType! Keyboard, $70
Outlay: $360
Utility: ****
Cool factor: ****
Bottom line: All my business and personal contact information is contained in one small device on which I can also edit text, send e-mail and surf the web. Great when traveling light, but I use my laptop when I’m home. The Handspring modem has been discontinued, but similar items are available at for $89-$119.

Cell phone
Gear: Ericcson R289LX mobile with Internet capability, and charger
Outlay: $100, plus $45/month (including limited Internet access) for AT&T wireless service
Utility: *****
Cool factor: ***
Bottom line: Seems everybody’s got a mobile phone these days, but this one can tell me what time movies are showing or recommend a good nearby restaurant for a business lunch. It also takes voicemail messages and lets me know who’s calling before I answer.

Plugs and adapters
Gear (pictured top to bottom): Three-pronged power adapter for UK/Ireland sockets, sold as part of a worldwide power adapter set, $50 from; two-pronged flat-pin adapter for U.S. plugs to fit into non-grounded sockets, less than $1 at most hardware stores; two-pronged round-pin power adapter for European sockets, part of the set sold by
Outlay: $51
Utility: *****
Cool factor: None
Bottom line: No power, no work. It’s not glamorous, but it’s important. Lose these small items and your overseas productivity is gone. You can also win points with ill-prepared fellow travelers by having spares for loan.

Zip drive
Gear: VST Zip 100 expansion bay drive for Powerbook G3; Iomega Zip disk, 100 megabytes (pictured)
Outlay: Drive, $219.95; disks, $44.95/five-pack
Utility: ****
Cool factor: ***
Bottom line: Better than dragging a Zip drive around with cables to connect to power and your computer. Just pop this in the expansion bay and you’re away. Even outside the laptop, it’s smaller than most Zip drives. A single Zip disk holds the equivalent of 80 floppies; it reads and writes faster than a typical floppy, and is sturdier, too.

Service, access and power
Gear: RoadRunner cable Internet service, $40/month, plus $10/month for LineRunner voice-over-IP service; dialup Internet access for Visor and on the road with laptop, $12/month; home electricity usage, 2.9 kwh/day or $10.50/month, includes lights, kitchen, TV, etc.
Outlay: About $72/month
Utility: *****
Cool factor: **
Bottom line: I couldn’t work without these services, but it’s not like you can rack up status points with your friends by showing off your ISP bill.