Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Luddite reps get smartphones, love them

My friend Daniel Goldin, proprietor of Boswell Books in Milwaukee, reads while he walks. It’s not something you see many people doing in our city, and I once heard a stranger say to him “Hey I know you, you’re that guy I always see reading and walking.”

I’ve done a fair bit of book-walking myself, and it’s easier than you might think. Peripheral vision is a powerful thing, and you can pretty much count on people to get out of your way when they see you coming. Still, it’s a rare thing to see, at least in my neighborhood.

Judging by the last eight days I spent in Cambridge, New Haven and New York, the world has caught up with Daniel. Except that, alas, instead of being immersed in books, walkers are staring down at their devices. It seems a miracle that the crowds of pedestrians on West 23rd street can avoid constant collisions with other people who are also not paying the slightest attention to where they are going, but they do avoid it! I am taking this as an argument for more reading-while-walking.

We do seem to have reached some sort of tipping point when it comes to smart phones. When people my age and above are obsessively poking away at their little screens in public, the transition to a computer in every pocket seems well underway.

The smart phone wave has even hit the Harvard/MIT/Yale rep force. Three weeks into going from mere phones to devices, every sales meeting break prompted iphones and blackberries being whipped out around the table. In past seasons, a ten minute break announcement sparked a run to the restroom and the coffee urn; as of this week, checking incoming email and texts seems to have supplanted creature comforts on the sales conference break priority list.

There's no denying it's a powerful tool. Minor questions and disputes- "Is this really the first book on this subject? What about that one by whatshisname that so and so published? What was it called?" - can be resolved instantly. There are subtle little contests to see who can wiki faster and come up with useful factoids.

Me, I have mixed feelings about it. So far I’m loving my droid. It's an undeniable rush to be able to triage incoming messages and deal with the important ones (orders!) on the spot.

I like having one hub where people can reach me, instead of a roster of alternative phone numbers and email addresses, all of which needed periodic checking. This has already “easied my life” as Andrey, our ace tech support guy, promised it would.

Some of the other bells and apps look intriguing, and some look ridiculous. I haven’t had much time to explore those possibilities yet, though I downloaded the “hypnotic spiral” for mesmerizing booksellers into taking vast copies of one new fall title, as I promised the author I would do.

Then there are the worrisome aspects: the constant tracking of our whereabouts, the comprehensive mapping of every inch of our geography, and the increasingly narrow-casting of advertising.

Smart phone enthusiasts seem relatively blasé about this dark side of the technology. And the concerns that get expressed seem way more about potential big government surveillance than about the creeping corporate choreography of our economic behavior.

Personally, I’m more alarmed about the little phone in my pocket being the leading edge of our transformation into robotic little uber-consumers than I am about nefarious Orwellian government. It’s a little disturbing to see how much privacy we’re willing to give away for fun and convenience.

When my colleague Adena and I drove from Cambridge to New Haven- a route she knows very well- we let the lady from the google navigation system direct us just for fun. Her crisp instructions were correct in every detail, and she seemed absolutely certain and confident. We felt like daring outlaws when we pulled off the designated GPS route in Vernon, Connecticut to stop at our favorite delicatessen. “Turn around!” the lady warned us.

No doubt future iterations of the device will co-opt the possibility of even this mild rebellion. “I see you’re getting off at Exit 65. How about a nice bowl of matzo ball soup at Rein’s,” she will purr. It will seem perfect, her knowing exactly what we want even before we do. But instead of being our idea it will be hers.

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