Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lost Plan Dynosaur Rant

Privacy Lost: These Phones Can Find You - If you pay the monthly fee and push the right button you can activate your cell phone as part of a social positioning network. You will see the locations of participating friends as dots on a map. An example from Kyna Fong, who subscribes to Loopt, the spn service offered by Sprint/Nextel, tells the story of this exciting technology:

One night last summer she [Ms Fong] noticed on Loopt that friends she was meeting for dinner were 40 miles away, and would be late. Instead of waiting, Ms. Fong arranged her schedule to arrive when they did. “People don’t have to ask ‘Where are you?’” she said.
The rest of this post is a geezer's rant about one social side effect of the cell phone, it's impact on a quaint tradition called the appointment. Stop now if you can't handle the truth. In olden times, before cell phones roamed the earth, people would speak briefly, make plans and show up on time.

The cell phone somehow made it OK to be late, provided you called at least 5 minutes before your scheduled arrival to announce your anticipated tardiness. The fact that your delay left others waiting with nothing to do, the fact that your late arrival would screw up their schedules for the rest of the day - no matter - your failure to plan, your massive and controlling ego and general me first attitude must all be forgiven, because you had called to announce that you would be late after it was too late for anyone else to do anything about it. True, there were limits, if you were going to be late by more than half an hour you might have to call twice, but the clever cell phone apologist could now feel good about delays of any length, it was just a matter of making the right calls at the right times. A true master could even orchestrate a string of calls, each announcing a new reason for a small delay, that ended in a surprising outright cancellation.

The fundamentally moronic notion that a last minute cell phone announcement of impending tardiness entitles the caller to plenary absolution has contributed to a related side effect - the scheduling minuet. No decision can be made simply, firmly and in advance. Every step in an evening must be choreographed gradually with a series of telephone, e-mail and text exchanges. One exchange covers the agenda, with banter back and forth moving glacially from what meal to what neighborhood to what restaurant, a second, sometimes parallel sometimes overlapping discussion, addresses the delicate question of date and time. leading from a reserved date, to a rough time to a more precise time (subject always to the possibility of late arrival preceded by cell phone explanation).

What does all this have to do with the social positioning network? First, forget the NY Times headline, privacy is a non-issue here. You can pick who is in your network and stop transmitting your own location whenever you want.

No, the problem is captured in Ms Fong's quote. The spn is a new step in the evolution of a problem that has crept along in the cell phone's wake - the use of constant electronic communication as an incredibly time consuming substitute for making a simple commitment and honoring it. You can no longer trust your friends to be on time, you can no longer trust them even to make the incredibly irritating last minute cell phoned tardiness announcement - now you simply plot their course, compute their ETA (generally this involves nothing more challenging than solving a third order linear differential equation taking into account location, traffic, mode of transport and possible digressions) and then reroute your own schedule and course to produce a matching ETA for yourself. What a wonderful technology. This is so much simpler and easier than making friends you can rely on, deciding together, in one simple, single communication involving real time interaction (hint-this used to be called a phone call) that you will meet at the diner at 8PM, then showing up on time.

Thankfully I am old enough so that nearly all my friends developed ingrained habits before the cell phone existed. With luck I may die before I have to substitute gps positional analysis for the quaint custom of making an appointment.

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