Free and clear plan

Lunch breaks and vacations barely exist in this tech-mad era—unless you unplug.

YEAH FOR US! US News & World Report noted last month that Americans have surpassed the Japanese to become the long-hours champion in the Workplace Olympics. The average salaried employee in the United States now works a whopping 48 hours per week, up from 43 in 1978.

With the “help” of technology, we can take the entire office to lunch—literally. Plop the laptop down at Starbucks, plug the sucker into a conveniently located e-port, set the cell next to your latte, and your coffee “break” no longer exists. People can’t leave their work behind because it’s strapped to them with a variety of headsets, harnesses, holsters, and “hands-free solutions.” (From the Roxy Satellite and Wireless catalog: “The Side Kik is a practical auto-seat workstation that supports mobile office activities. Adjustable legs allow you the stability of a desk even while driving.”)

Sabbatical, schmatical. Today, fewer and fewer employees are taking vacations without bringing along work-related chores—iBooks, PalmPilots, and StarTACs sit poolside with pi� (“Outlook since your departure bleak. STOP. Trouble with main office. STOP. Have a nice trip. STOP.”)

The future looks so bright you’ve got to wear a socket. Like life with the evil Borgs of Star Trek, technological resistance is futile. An estimated 420 million cell phones were sold last year, with projected sales at 600 million for 2001. Motorola estimates a 40 percent growth rate for three to five years beyond that. Personal digital assistant (PDA) sales doubled in 2000 to 9.4 million, with expected worldwide shipments in the 30 million range by 2004. And this cybernetic stranglehold isn’t only mobile, it’s also infiltrated the living room. The time-tested King of the Couch Potato, the La-Z-Boy recliner, has been updated to reflect our multitasking madness. Microsoft and La-Z-Boy last week unveiled the Explorer, a padded recliner outfitted for Web surfing and interactive TV. Now you can’t even sit on your ass watching a football game without instant messages from colleagues creeping into your downtime.

All this comes at a cost, not just to our psyche, but the old-fashioned piggy bank as well. I called around to get some pricing for being “plugged in” on a monthly basis—not including the hardware, taxes, or surcharges—and the numbers don’t add up (at least not in my bank account): EarthLink Internet, $19.95; 1,000 Sprint PCS minutes, $99.99; DirecTV, $49.99; Land-line, $20.63; Pager, $14.95; PDA hookup (PalmNet), $24.95; Go-Lite Wireless Connector, $9.95; GPS with Streetfinder (gotta have it!), $14.95. Grand Techno-Total: $255.36. That’s only $3,064 per year, folks.

“OH, DIDN’T YOU GET my message?”

Without a cell phone, beeper, laptop, or PDA in my life, meeting friends has become a logistical nightmare. While these contraptions may have been designed to make our lives more convenient, they’ve instead created a process of constantly “checking in” that’s far too controlling. No longer is it possible to simply go from point A to point B. As I’m on my way, dozens of electronic and voice messages collect in overloaded data banks, alerting changes of plan—like the Titanic SOS—received too late: “Hey, it’s Marty in the car. Wanted to let you know I’m running about 30 minutes behind. See ya then.” Ultimately I sit, twiddling my thumbs, stewing for half an hour about why people can’t simply put a date on the calendar and make it happen.

Besides the Amish, many of us are technological hermits. When we leave our home or office, we wish to be temporarily out of touch, out of range, free to roam without roaming charges. Walking Alki, we will not be interrupted by vibrating incoming calls, messages, or stock quotes. Wild and loose, girlfriends and boyfriends cannot determine our whereabouts, nor can authorities, parents, solicitors, or (best of all) the Boss Man.

If the need to get in touch arises, there are still those funny-looking booths sticking out of the sidewalk or attached to buildings or inside the bar. Or have we forgotten?

“Please deposit all the change in your pocket for the next three minutes. Better yet, get a cell phone.” Mobile without a phone, I frequently use public telephones (if only to check messages I know are waiting from friends with cells). According to the Pay Phone Association (there actually is one: It cost me 35 cents to get the number and another 35 cents to be connected), there are 2.2 million pay phones in the United States, and in each of the last two years that number has declined 20 percent—not to mention that only about half are functioning and about 10 still have the yellow pages attached.

THE DOWNSIDES to my technophobia? Had I lived with Kennewick Man, I’d have been the last one to embrace the warm flames of fire, having to eat my woolly mammoth blood-rare. Without advances, we’d all be sucking down coal fumes, living in iron lungs, and straining to read hand-scribed tablets by candlelight. Eventually, even Luddites are driven from tradition and forced to accept new standards and practices. Try parking your horse downtown, much less finding a feed store within 300 miles. Hell, try getting an Underwood typewriter repaired, a roller for your mangle, or rotary phone replacement parts. Slowly but surely, new technologies bleed the old-school customs dry, and you’re left adapting or playing your phonograph records till the needle’s worn out.

One day you’re growling at some fool talking on a Timeport in a quiet restaurant, the next you’re chatting it up in the middle of the symphony. I am well aware that at some point I’m going to require a cellular phone. Like watches, automobiles, and George Foreman Grilling Machines, they will become a necessity—the heart of modern-day society (and Bill thought it was a clunky PC). Coming in June: the Nokia 5100 Smartcover. Hold the sucker up to a scanner, it contacts a wireless network and debits a Big Mac, Volvo, or your life savings from a credit card account. (Called an “electronic purse,” it may not hold your lipstick but can be stolen just as swiftly.) Other add-ons such as cameras, karaoke, and GPS are on the way. Why don’t they just tattoo bar codes on our foreheads and be done with it?

So-called “smart” objects now rule a less-smart populace—working harder, with less free time, more distractions, and higher bills. So how come I’m the one being treated like a Neanderthal? The majority of the time, I prefer to remain unreachable, untethered to the network, in the moment, and at ease. Having a Communicator on hand may be convenient but also requires excuses when the captain wants it turned on. (“Yeah, uh, the tractor beam must have been down, or, er, my battery’s on the blink.”) I’m creating my own calling plan: remote, off-the-satellite, and temporarily unavailable. Call me a technophobe, lunkhead, or Luddite, but don’t call me on my cell phone, because my plan is “free and clear.” Leave me a message; maybe I’ll get back to you.