From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

June 26, 2004*: Confessions of a conservative technology freak.

Considering that over the years I've adopted, and adapted to, a rather large number of technological innovations, I doubt that I can really be called a creature of habit. I generally feel quite comfortable with new technologies, even if it may seem that I'm resistant toward them upon first encountering them. Usually, sooner or later, I learn how to incorporate them into my life. I try, though of course not always successfully, not to ask "do I want this?", but rather "do I need this?". Of course there's always the lingering fear that if we don't purchase the latest available gadget, it might suggest that we're luddites, rejecting technology out of a deep fear of technological progress, but I've learned to live with the threat of being publicly exposed in that way.

But these are the sort of thoughts that can come to mind almost any day of the week. Other than the need to think of a topic for an additional column, why is it that I'm dealing with them now? That honor goes to a short article on a new "tool" that (at least from my perspective) promises to disappear in the rather near future - which perhaps also explains why I'm in a hurry to write about it. That tool promises to solve one of the unsung problems with e-mail - not knowing whether the person we've sent mail has actually read it.

In today's world we live with numerous unknowns. Frankly, I tend to see this ability to persevere in the face of uncertainly as quite an achievement. It is, after all, an age of doubt. Yet rather than surrendering to that doubt and allowing it to take over our lives, we continue to live with it, finding ways to convince ourselves that there really is meaning in this world. But even if we accept uncertainly as an inherent aspect of our lives, there are probably numerous doubts that we'd still strive to overcome, and one of these is the desire to know whether the e-mail that we've sent somebody has actually been received and read. And the good people at seem to be doing something about this. This industrious start-up has designed a small "bug" that gets sent with each e-mail message which then lets us know when it appears on the screen of the person to whom we sent mail. Presto! One small bug, and no more doubts.

But if, two paragraphs ago, I started to explain why I'm once again writing about my ambivalence toward various technologies, after the last paragraph readers should be even more confused. Do I really mean to suggest that a simple e-mail tracker is the catalyst toward a renewed reflection on my relationship with technology? Spyware that keeps track of what we're up to when we sit in front of our computers may make us feel vulnerable and unprotected, but this bug seems more benign than that. What's more, many sites track us without requesting our permission, and few people seem to get overly enraged about that either. (Frankly, when does this we're usually pleased with the results because in that way they're able to suggest products which we might want to purchase.) Basically, the people at Did They Read It are offerring us a service, and it may well be a service which many people wouldn't mind having. Though in our personal lives it may only be a question of whether that old high school friend we think we've tracked down is avoiding us or whether the e-mail address we've found for him or her is no longer in use, in business a tool such as this can let us know whether our associates are really getting the job done.

Which is precisely the point. Our technologies tend to offer us much more than we actually want, or need. They create situations which we didn't ask to be faced with, but that become unavoidable once they become available. It's not that I resist new technologies, heaven forbid, or that I think that they carry inherent, and often unforeseen, dangers. Instead, what I find we need most are filters – sieves that separate us from becoming entwined with the technology, from having to make use of it, from becoming one with it. I almost never shut off my cellular, and I've learned to live with both the advantages and the disadvantages of being accessible 24 hours a day. And of course even when I'm constantly reachable, I'm able to check who is calling and choose to reject the call. Nobody has to know that I didn't answer his or her call - just that for some reason I didn't answer. There are people who still believe that when we don't answer their call it's because we're really not availabe. A tool that lets someone know that I've (finally?) read the mail they sent removes a filter which I find desirable. If I want to answer, I want to do so when I see fit. If I want to lie and tell someone that I never found that letter in my inbox, I prefer that he or she willingly accept that lie rather than check up on me behind my back. It's one small step (or perhaps one small standing in place) for remaining distinct from our technology.

A tool like Did They Read It seems to me to be conceptually similar to Push Technology - not in what it does, or in the way it works, but in the sense that it takes down barriers, makes us perenially visible and available. Not only have I not become one with my technologies, I don't want to. And that's what makes me a conservative. It would seem that Kevin Warwick and others of his ilk find something desirable in the blurring of the borders between ourselves and the outside world. I don't. Though long ago I admitted to being constantly connected, I still want to maintain my identity, to keep my distance. But that's not because I think that we're in danger of becoming machines or because too much computing will detract from our humanity. It's simpler than that. I want to keep my distance. There are probably many good reasons for doing this, but not the least of them is that when barriers still exist, and we continue to distinguish between here and there, between now and then, we continue to discover what may have always been there, but that wasn't distinct from a certain, previous, perspective. We're still capable of being surprised.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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