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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

A Few Snooty Words about Technological Etiquette
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OK, here comes one of those columns that is going to win me a lot of enemies. (Like I need any more, right?) I want to say a few words about technological etiquette, or the lack thereof, in our increasingly media-saturated society.

Let me first establish the fact that I'm no Luddite. Indeed, I am a technophile to the core. Anyone who has read anything I've written over the past 15 years knows that I devote a great deal of time and column space to celebrating our wonderful new world of communications and media technology. Indeed, I personally spend much my life swimming in a sea of techno-gadgetry. In addition to my think tank work for PFF, I do some part-time work with a home A/V installation firm in the Washington, DC area where I help install, calibrate and program very high-end home audio, video and data systems. (My specialty is programming universal remotes & automated touch screens as well as video projector installation and calibration). Meanwhile, my own home looks like the combination of the Sharper Image catalog and a Best Buy showroom. Here's a partial inventory of what my family has in our home currently: 3 HDTVs (including one ceiling-based video projector for an 8-ft wide screen); 2 computers (and many more retired ones in the closet!); 3 DVD players; 2 digital cameras; 1 camcorder; a Belkin pre-N wi-fi system for data networking; a 7.1 surround sound system in my home theater; 3 video game consoles (one is a PlayStation Portable); 3 XM satellite radio subscriptions (two are for the cars; one for home); a whole-house (6-zone) distributed audio system that pumps satellite radio and my massive CD collection through the entire house; 2 cell phones; and 1 Blackberry. (That Blackberry is my wife's).

OK, so now you know how much I love technology! It was important I establish that fact clearly so I can make my next point: I am really beginning to hate technology! More specifically, I am really amazed to see how many people are losing all sense of social etiquette as they integrate all these new media and communications technologies into their lives.

Take two excellent examples that have already received a great deal of attention: the use of cell phones in public places (restaurants, cinemas, subway cars) and the use of cell phones while driving. Many of us are guilty of the latter offense of dialing while driving and it has led to some serious concerns (and even public policy debates) about road safety. I'm not saying that gabbing while driving is a problem for everyone. Many, if not most people are in perfect control of their vehicles while using their cell phones. New "hands-free" gadgets are helping out in that regard. But I'm more worried about those people who can't walk and chew gum at the same time. These are the morons you see that are all over the road while they're tying to cradle their tiny cell phones between their shoulder and their cheek. Apparently their pea-sized brains can't process two simple tasks at once and they end up putting all the rest of us at risk. I'm hoping there's a special ring in Hell reserved for these people. (I just hope they're not allowed to drive around that ring if I'm down there with them!) Regardless, they are just being rude and stupid by not paying more attention to the road.

But they are not being nearly as rude as the jerks who decide they just have to take that phone call they get while they're in a public place. These are the vermin who believe that every call they receive must be taken immediately no matter where they are at in this world. If you are one of these people, I just have to ask: What the heck is wrong with you? Do you have any idea how rude you are being to others? Do you think that the whole world wants to hear your inane banter and all the irrelevant details of your personal life? Please, spare us. That's especially the case for you loud talkers out there. At least some cell phone fanatics try to keep their tone down to a respectable level. But there's always that one big guy at the airport or diner who decides to take a call and then talk at decibel levels usually reserved for rock concerts. Put a rag in it buddy.

But--and here's where I'm going to make the most enemies--I'm hoping that the very lowest rung of Hades is reserved for Blackberry fanatics. The obsession with PDAs (personal digital assistants) is really getting out-of-control. (Perhaps that's why some PDA addicts now refer to their Blackberrys as "Crack-berrys.") I find it astonishing that some people would want to be tied to their e-mail 24/7, and yet most people I know in the Washington area are already living in that world. I have friends who admit to me that the last thing they do at night is stash their PDAs in its cradle next to their bed so that they can grab it first thing in the morning. Another friend of mine told me that he often takes his to the bathroom with him to check e-mails.

If you Crack-berry addicts want to take your office with you everywhere you go, that's fine. But when you bring your PDA obsession out in public with you, that's when I start to have some real problems. For example, I sometime golf, or even play poker, with a group of guys who spend the entire time scrolling through their e-mails when they should be enjoying themselves or talking to me. During the occasional poker games I host at my house, the first thing everyone does when they sit down at the table is place their cell phones and PDAs next to their stack of chips. It looks like a wireless industry trade show in my basement every time we play cards. And between every hand, at least one idiot at the table feels the need to glance down at the Blackberry or cell phone. Again, as I asked my friends whenever they do this: What is wrong with you people? Can't you just stow your gadgets away for a few minutes and have some fun?

It's even more offensive when you're in the middle of an important meeting or conversation and people start this. For example, a few days ago I was having a meeting with two business people who shall remain nameless. We were just a few minutes into our otherwise excellent conversation when one of them started peering down at their PDA and scrolling through their e-mails. Then they started answering them by frantically typing away on the world's smallest keyboard. I thought that was a little rude, but I decided to just turn my attention to the other person in the meeting and try to talk directly with him instead. But no sooner had I done so than his Blackberry started buzzing and he too answered it and started typing away. So there I am in the middle of what was suppose to be an important meeting--a meeting that the two of them had requested with me no less!--and both of these jerks are staring down at their laps communicating with someone else besides me. At that point I had had it. But instead of making some sort of a scene, I instead just decided to stop talking in mid-sentence. I didn't say another word. After a few seconds, one of them finally looked up at me and said "Oh, sorry, go ahead." Meanwhile, the other person didn't even bother looking up. So I said, "No, why don't you guys go ahead and finish your messages; they must be important after all." That's when Crack-berry Addict #2 finally looked up from their lap and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, I guess that is a little rude to be doing all this while we're suppose to be talking." You think so Sherlock? Glad you finally got the clue! (Next time this happens, I'm considering just taking my PlayStation Portable out of my bag and just start playing a game until everyone gets the point).

Now granted, as my former Cato colleague Jim Harper will tell you, I am not the most exciting person to listen to in this world. In fact, as this column proves once again, I just love to gab! But you know, I have a lot more respect for people like Jim who just tell me "Shut up and leave me alone. I've got better things to do than listen to you!" than I do for the jerks who just start playing with their PDAs and cell phones in mid-conversation. That's especially the case when you ask me to attend the meeting to get my opinion on something!

So, for all you Crack-berry addicts and cell phone gabbers out there, next time one of the gadgets on your Batman-belt full of devices starts buzzing while you're in a public place or the middle of conversations, I encourage you to exercise a little restraint. Have some respect for others. Specifically, let me offer Two Simple Rules of Techno-Etiquette:

(1) If you absolutely MUST take that cell phone call or answer that e-mail right away, try saying this: "Excuse me, do you mind if I do this real quick." That would be a great first step down your path to techno-etiquette recovery.

(2) Do not EVER, under any circumstances, answer a cell phone call while you are in a restaurant, movie theater or other public establishment where relative quiet is expected. If you have to take the call, go outside.

Seriously, would that be so hard?

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:05 AM | Generic Rant

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