Gadgets: A Personal Note

bridges vol. 12, December 2006 / Kalt's Corner on Science & Society

by Stefan Kalt




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While in previous columns I've expressed deep reservations about the "technologism" of the postmodern world, this has never killed off my great fascination with gadgets - and handheld gadgets in particular. I was once the proud owner of a handheld device known as the Palm Tungsten T3. You've probably never heard of this machine because it was discontinued some time ago, and it wasn't very popular even when it was available. But one thing set it apart: It had an extendable screen. For a little more screen space, you just pushed up the visible part of the screen and - lo and behold - more screen emerged! When fully extended, the T3 thus became the Harley Davidson Chopper of handhelds. When you'd had enough of it, you slipped the extra bit of screen back into its metal pouch. The moment I saw it, I found this extension feature mesmerizing, and after I bought the T3 I tried to hypnotize others with it. My success was limited.

Although the T3's screen extender hooked me, I had gone searching for a handheld for an entirely different reason: to retrieve e-mails wirelessly. Naturally, I convinced myself that I couldn't live without being in wireless communication with my co-workers, friends, and family. But subconsciously, I didn't care who sent me e-mails or what they were about; I just wanted to retrieve them with a tiny gadget. Getting to them wasn't easy because I had to set up something called a "Bluetooth connection." Theoretically, this enabled my cell phone to serve as a modem for the T3. Although my technological illiteracy deeply embarrassed me at the time, I got a confidence boost when I learned that my service provider - T-Mobile - really had no idea how the set-up procedure worked. Nor did Palm, maker of the T3. Nor did Sony Ericsson, my cell phone manufacturer. I exaggerate a little - someone at Sony Ericsson did finally solve the Bluetooth mystery. "Kip" was his name (or so he told me), and he was the last person that Sony Ericsson would assign to me before, as one customer representative sweetly confessed, I'd have to be handed back over to T-Mobile for another lap around the circle of befuddlement. Kip was no sweetie, however. With barking commands, he had me filling up my T3 and my cell phone with number after number, all the while munching on something and sharing belly laughs with a girl who seemed to be sitting on his lap. Obviously, he'd handled my type before, and his regal contempt and techno-hauteur kept me off balance and meekly disposed to put into my T3 anything that he ordered. Luckily for me, those numbers were golden: The T3 was pulling e-mails out the sky that very evening. Thanks to Kip, I was suddenly able to use a second gadget: my attachable micro-keyboard. I could now proudly respond to e-mail messages with quickly contrived e-mail messages of my own. All I had to do was plop the T3 into a sort of crib and begin hammering at the clip-on keyboard. As with downloading messages, so with typing them: The messages themselves hardly mattered. The main thing was the little keyboard - it looked awfully cute. Or that's what women (usually mothers) would tell me as they admiringly strolled by my table at Pete's Coffee. I played the proud father to a T.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} I was a single dad, too. Regarding the T3, my wife would have none of it. A confirmed technological minimalist, she scorns gadgets. But her indifference to the T3 didn't bother me. To be honest, I was happy that it meant nothing to her because I was becoming very protective of it. On one occasion when, all on her own, she actually dared to pick up my precious handheld - not to admire it, but to move it in order to set the table - I got hysterical. "Use both hands!" I blurted out uncontrollably. From that moment onwards, my wife realized that I was stricken with some sort of mental disease which, being relatively harmless and not at all contagious, wasn't worth the effort to cure (if it was curable). So she played along, sometimes asking in the most empathic voice she could simulate: "So how is T3 doing?" I was deeply touched.

As needs scarcely be mentioned, I lavished my T3 with numerous accessories: a shiny bulletproof metal case, a car cigarette lighter power adapter, an intercontinental power converter, a screen cleaning "system" (really just a fuzzy lint collector), a PowerPoint projector jack; not to mention various onboard applications to help me watch extremely short movies, view the Boston harbor tugboat schedule, record my voice (should I burst into song), select just the right red wine to go with my hickory burger, or surf the Web. I strained to exploit all these gizmos. For example, although the Web surfing application took a full four minutes to get me to a virtual phone directory (or to any site), I never once succumbed to the temptation to leaf through the Yellow Pages sitting under the telephone in my kitchen. And when, pinched for time, my wife wisely suggested that I might consult the Yellow Pages, well . . . let's not go there.

After a while, though, my love affair with the T3 began to cool down. To begin with, there were limits to my talent for concealing from myself a lack of any genuine need for wireless e-mail or Web surfing. And the fun was fading. Like most academic philosophers, I have little need for constant contact with reality. Since I'd rather be reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason than talking to people or breathing fresh air, I really have to coax myself into checking e-mails or roaming cyberspace for news about the external world (to say nothing about experiencing the external world). As the joy of downloading waned, my e-mails started piling up, and one day I peeped into my T3's Inbox only to discover that there were about 700 e-mails patiently waiting to be downloaded. At that moment I became allergic to wireless e-mail. Even before that, however, trouble was brewing. For a long time I was very unadvisedly trying to get my e-mails while driving. Here's how I did it: With my left hand I would turn on the Bluetooth connector located in my cell phone. My right hand firmly gripping the wheel, I'd drop the cell phone on my lap and grasp the T3 (which, if I was lucky, was within graspable range). Popping the stylus out of its silo, I would grab it with my mouth and try to tap the T3's touch-sensitive screen to start the e-mail application, all the while shifting the cell phone between my knees in order to . . . but enough said. Deep down, I felt there must be a better way - and so did the guy in the BMW who mouthed obscenities as I drove him off the freeway.

I don't have the T3 any more. I gave it away in the hope that I could starve to death my lust for technological gimmickry and live a longer life (or allow others to live one). But starving the passions tends to nourish them. Of late I've been furtively eying the latest Palm Treo, having learned that it downloads e-mails with ease, surfs the Web at the speed of light, functions as a phone, and does other things that I don't understand. I guess it won't be long before I buy it. I wonder if my wife is ready for a new addition to the family?

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The author, Stefan Kalt, is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.

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