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No place to hide from new technology

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The function of modern technology is to assure that everything you have at the office you can have at home and that what you have at home you can have in your car and that everything in your car you can have on your person.

The telephone, for example, was once restricted to businesses, gravitated to the hall table and kitchen wall, appeared in the car as an expensive device mounted over the transmission and recently became a slim, unobtrusive plastic lozenge worn gunslinger-style on the belt.The cell phone, as with so many communications breakthroughs, had tradeoffs. On the one hand, it diverted the driver's or pedestrian's attention from a sudden curve or an open manhole; on the other hand, it allowed the driver or pedestrian to summon help in that instant between hitting the tree or disappearing into the sewer.

A not atypical pedestrian may have slung, hung and wrapped around his person: an electronic wristwatch, a cell phone, a pager, a radio/CD player with headset and, if a fitness nut, a heartbeat monitor. Environmentalists worry about electromagnetic radiation from power lines; the average person absorbs far more radiation just waiting in a crowd to cross the street.

Laptops are already suitable for cars. Many police cruisers have them so the officer can retrieve your entire criminal history, credit record, college grades, medical checkups, workplace performance, genealogy and average elapsed time on computer solitaire while you're walking back to the squad car to explain that you ran the stop sign because you were trying to work the call-waiting function on your cell phone.

The next step is make all of this information available on a little wireless, hand-held computer the size of a cell phone, the palmtop. The industry will hail this breakthrough as a positive development for mankind, and mankind, being endlessly gullible, will accept it as such: "Just imagine! Access to the Internet while you're walking down the street! You can shop, gamble, research, play games, pry into other people's affairs!"

Nonsense. Let us review the technology cycle. At first, main frames were confined to offices. When PCs were developed, people thought that with a computer at home they could telecommute. Instead, they worked both at the office and at home. Then came the laptop, and rather than being a liberating device the laptop enabled people to work in their cars and on board airlines and while waiting in doctors' offices. The hand-held computer will allow them to work on the street, in elevators, in the bathroom.

People will be able to work all the time until they drop dead in their tracks like an abused ox - or disappear down a manhole while working spreadsheets on the sidewalk. That is, if they're not first victimized by a new kind of criminal, punks armed with horseshoe magnets: "Hand over your passwords or I'll degauss your palm-top!" If Newt Gingrich and Al Gore succeed in giving every kid a laptop or palmtop, there will be unpleasant incidents of school-yard demagnetizing.

The social order will be reversed. Through the NASA home pages and various Web sites, a palmtop user can access information from satellites and planetary probes. Soon, the crazy people will be the only ones on the park bench NOT getting messages from outer space.