I recently read a short Computerworld article that said California is going to install Wi-Fi in 85 state parks. The article provided one example of a potential benefit. Since the first park to get Wi-Fi will be a beach, surfers will be able to send out over the Internet up-to-date pictures and information about wave conditions. That's just great. What had been a terrific surfing experience for them will quickly turn into one where surf traffic controllers will be required to prevent accidents due to overcrowding on the waves.
I'm becoming convinced that we need to set up a few technology-free zones in our lives. Most state, provincial, and national parks would be good places to start. Do we really need our technologies there? I doubt that anyone is particularly interested in reading the excruciating detail of some blogger's real-time description of the incredible beauty around him--beauty that he would have been in awe of, if only he hadn't been staring at his computer screen throughout his whole vacation.
Where else should we set up technology-free zones? People complain about cell phones in restaurants, but I don't think restaurants should be totally technology-free. Restaurants should be allowed to keep their fancy new cash registers. But it should be illegal to let your cell phone ring in a restaurant. I'd extend that regulation to movie theaters and public parks, too. Perpetrators of such crimes should be locked up for one full day for each offense. Their cells (locked rooms, not telephones) should be very sparse, with just a speaker playing the nonstop ringing of a telephone.
Although we like to tell ourselves (and everyone else who will listen without running away screaming like a banshee) otherwise, most of us are not all that important in the grand scheme of things. In most cases, nobody will die just because he or she can't reach us for a couple of hours or even a couple of days. Those very few people who do receive life-and-death calls--such as exceptionally important on-call doctors (which reminds me of an old joke: Q: What's the difference between God and a surgeon? A: God doesn't think He's a surgeon.)--should put their cell phones on vibrate mode and sit on the end of an aisle when they visit a movie theater. That's not such a hardship. In fact, a strategically placed vibrating phone can be quite enjoyable...a nice massage can do wonders for your aching muscles.
To make this work, we need at least one technological advance. The whole idea is that people in theaters want to listen to the movie rather than to you or your phone. If a courteous doctor switches to vibrate mode and refuses to talk inside the theater, there is the danger that by the time she feels the vibration, realizes that it is not her husband being frisky in a dark theater, stands up, gets to the lobby, and answers the call, the caller will have hung up. What we need is a switch that, when turned on, will result in callers hearing a message instead of the usual ringing sound. The message would go something like, "Your call is important to me. Please stay on the line. I will get to it as soon as possible. Please try to not die in the interim."
I should add that while I don't want to listen to ringing telephones when I'm watching a movie or savoring a fine restaurant meal, I am not one of those people who gets terribly upset about someone talking on a cell phone in a restaurant, provided that it's an outbound call or the phone "rang" only in vibrate mode and (this is a really big "and") the person talks in a normal speaking voice. I'm single, and I have only three friends, so I find myself eating alone a lot. I don't see any difference between me talking quietly on a cell phone and a group of people chatting at the next table. Of course, with only three friends, I don't have a tremendous need to call anyone while I'm sitting at a restaurant. And people rarely call me while I'm in a restaurant, but I'm not sure how much that is due to the fact that there are not a lot of people who have the slightest interest in calling me and how much is due to the fact that I always turn off my cell phone in restaurants. But I digress.
No, for me, the problem is not people talking on cell phones in restaurants. The problem is that what is a normal voice for someone on a cell phone is nowhere close to his or her normal voice in any other situation. Most people talk rather loudly on their cell phones. That's "rather loudly" as in "you might get rather burned if you travel to the center of the sun." Some people shout as if the sound waves generated by their vocal cords have to carry all the way to the person on the other end of the line without any assistance from radio waves and cables.
My campaign for technology-free zones is not starting from zero. Airlines have always had technology suppressors in their planes, at least in economy class. If you've ever been working away on your computer when the person in front of you decides to abruptly push his or her seat back, scrunching your screen and ramming your computer into your stomach, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
While I'm on the topic of airlines, I always thought that it was a good thing that we aren't allowed to use our cell phones on a plane once the doors have closed. It's nice having a cell phone-free zone while locked in a high-tech flying machine. Then again, I've always suspected that it had less to do with radio frequency interference and safety, as claimed by the airlines, than it had to do with the fact that the backs of airplane seats carry phones that force you to take out a second mortgage before you use them. I'm even more convinced that it is not a safety issue now that the FCC, FAA, and probably a few other "F" organizations that I don't know about are looking at getting rid of the restriction on cell phone use in airplanes. How much do you want to bet that the airlines will eventually wake up and fight that one? "Oh, no, no, no; we couldn't possibly allow that! It's a safety issue. Our $100-per-minute seat-back phones are much, much safer." Personally, I hope that the airlines do fight it--and win. I really don't want to be forced to hear exceptionally loud, incessant chattering all around me while trapped inside a fuselage.
I've gone on long enough. To sum up, mount the good fight. Battle hard for your right to technology-free zones in your world. As for me, I'll have to end this now because I'm about to head off on a brief holiday, and I have to pack up my laptop computer so I can bring it with me. Hey, read my bio. I never denied being a hypocrite.
Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at