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Wireless makes more, not less, work

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BOSTON — What got me were the sheep. The newspaper ad featured a shepherd and his flock on some remote moor. And the caption asked: "Wish you had more free time?"

Well, yeah. Summertime and the livin' ain't easy. Free time is the subject of more fantasies than frozen yogurt. But these sheep weren't posing for a rural getaway or a pastoral retreat. They were modeling for wireless phone service.

Frankly, I usually glaze over ads. This one caught my eye because it was bought and wrought by AT&T, the same folks who conned an entire country into believing we could "reach out and touch someone" with nothing more tactile than a voice. In the 1980s, they raised a lump in the collective American throat with the perverse promise that long distance could make us closer.

Fast-forward into faster times, and they're part of another sales pitch. This time, the ploy is that the wireless technology connecting us — especially to the office — actually sets us free.

Well, I have a grudging admiration for the advertising sociologists. For a century, they've proved remarkably adept at figuring out what we want in order to sell us what they have. Selling cigarettes as beauty treatments was just a beginning. They sell riding over boulders in the outback to people circling the city for parking spaces. And now they are using the lure of "free time" and open space to sell high-tech leashes to the 24-7 workweek.

The techie 'zine Fast Company is full of this bait and switch. There's an ad featuring a snug, snow-covered log house deep in the mountains that's advertising voice-data convergence: "So even the middle of nowhere can be the hub of activity."

There's another ad featuring a dot-com worker decked out in vacation lei over the promising caption: "You now have the license to do what you want, where you want and when you want. . . . It's technology that sets you free." Off to Hawaii with your Toshiba laptop: "Your hall pass to anywhere . . ."

Then, of course, there's a Tibetan Sherpa sitting in a mountain crevice over the come-on: "Dreams made real." If, of course, you dream of doing your e-mail in the Himalayas.

Looking for a guru to blaze the path to nirvana? Guru.com boasts that you can "commute" from the bedroom to the living-room laptop with their help. Free at last, to turn the living room into an office.

Do I sound cranky? My own experience with the cell phone, e-mail, laptop, Palm Pilot, wireless, Internet world is by no means liberated. The ability to work anywhere means that you work everywhere. The cell phone that allows you to connect, makes it impossible to disconnect. The equipment that lets you do the job at home turns home life into moonlighting.

A New York Times writer recently described himself as "seriously hooked" on wireless Internet service on his hand-held computer. Why, he "could work these tasks into the dead spots of my evening" he wrote, as if unoccupied spaces were lethal zones.

Expectations have changed with technology, and the expectations are that we are as available as the Internet. You go on vacation and the e-mail keeps working. It's expected that you'll check in. So you never quite check out.

It's no surprise that our primary trend-watchers, the ad folks, have picked up on the feeling that we are missing something, or missing "nothing" if you prefer. Wish you had more free time? How about 500 minutes a month?" asks AT&T. The second ad in the series actually equips our shepherd with a surfboard. But the pitch is for filling 500 minutes of talk and the surfing is on the Internet.

The high-tech promise is that soon there won't be a single place out of touch. Not a log cabin or a mountaintop. An ad sells e-business networking with a photo of creatures at an African watering hole: "One location. Every species." The secret of this photo safari into technology is that soon there will be literally no getting away. No away.

One last ad for the summer un-vacation scrapbook. Check this one: a little girl lying on her elbows in the grass. In front of her on the lawn is a laptop. Below her is the line: "Introducing the perpetual customer." We have now officially seen the ghost of summer future. Just follow the sheep.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com

The Boston Globe Newspaper Company