Old Tech, New World

7:43:00 PM

It's now become a source of agitation when I'm at my local pub or coffeehouse writing these blogs. I keep getting interrupted by passersby curious not by what I'm writing but how I write it. I write with my cell phone ... And, what's curious about that?


Nifty? New? Where've you been hiding for the last ten years?

Now, I write best on a keyboard - not pen and paper. I'll do the thumb keyboard if I had to, but I prefer not to. I don't like to carry around a bulky laptop, even if it's the slimmest, most lightweight and expensive model. I carry around my cell phone all the time like any person in this new age. And so, with all these conditions in place, my "writing utensils" consist of my cell phone coupled with a pocket-sized Palm QWERTY keyboard that not only folds up into nifty pocket book size, but also interfaces through the Infra-Red port (standard on my Palm-based smart phone).

Fortunately my phone is equipped with the most modern features available today in mobile communications. For what it's worth, these modern features just mean shelling out an extra ten bucks per month for a data connection. Otherwise, the phone, a Palm Treo 755p, came out of the box with a Web browser, an e-mail client, an office suite including Word, Excel and Power Point. It came pre-loaded with an MP3 player, and the standard regalia software and ergonomics one expects from modern consumer goods. In short, once you go beyond using your thumbs for input, my phone's as beefy as any laptop around there (for what I use it for).

Now this writing apparatus was no miracle of modern engineering. It comes in a long genealogy (10 unending years for us fast-paced modernos) of gadgets that have graced Best Buy's counter top.

Before there was an Internet, around 1997, I had a PIM in my pocket: an electronic Rolodex. Its memo feature often featured some of my journal entries and it had as much sophistication as my current cell phone as far as organizing my contacts, schedules, to-dos and so on. Soon after that, I received a Cassiopeia. Surprisingly, whole "Palm" world hasn't been so much as more revolutionary, as sleeker since then. That was about 1999, back when my knees didn't hurt so much, and my teeth were whiter, and it only cost a dollar and change for a gallon of gas. Ahh! the good 'ol times! Those rustic times when carrying a pager wasn't out of the question.

The Cassiopeia might have been considered a breakthrough, if only the technology hadn't been around since pocket protectors.


The Cassiopeia had its shortcomings - namely, I sort of had a mental block learning its graffiti script. When I purchased my first Handspring Visor (my first Palm platform gizmo), I made an effort with the pen, and soon, my mobile computing took off in earnest - around Y2K. A year later, I had discarded my Motorola Cell phone, and I soon had a nifty expansion card that made my Handspring Visor a mobile phone as well.

Granted, it was a bulky, nerdy apparatus - a Palm Pilot with a thick hunk of plastic sticking out of the back and top, but my fashion faux-pas in the form of a belt clip lasted only a few months. The Treo 300 came out, and it looked surprisingly like an Old Trek communicator (okay still nerdy, but I could conceal it in my pocket, and by now the Smartphone craze had caught on enough that one of these gadgets was a mark of distinction, not of geekdom. I remember that the Blackberry was still just a glorified e-mail pager back then with PIM capabilities. Windows Mobile was still called Windows CE).

Well, the rest of this little genealogy is, as we say, history. The Treo hasn't changed much from the 300 to the 600 to the 650 and now: my 755p.

* * *

On one fine afternoon in New York City, my brother and I - on vacation - were roaming through the shelves at a Barnes and Noble at the World Trade Center - before 9/11. I still retain a crisp, vivid memory of sauntering through the cafe at the bookstore, wandering to find a free table, and something took me aback. I became mesmerized in the din of coffee hogs. I awestruck by the forward thinking of New Yorkers, and the moment even has a tint of a Twilight Zone episode where the uniformity of all the tables has certain eeriness – as if one had suddenly crossed into a new, more complex and bizarre world. Every other table had a bohemian or urban professional with a Handspring attached to collapsible keyboard identical to the one I use today. (This is in the time where laptops weren't too fashionable and Macintosh, as it was known back then, was pretty much written out of the computing history books).

I loved that New York had shown me the way, and it was shortly the rather surreal sight at the bookstore that I hustled to my Circuit City to get my own Handspring/keyboard combo. I've had both ever since.

* * *

I moved to New York City less than a year ago, and I've come to know that it is a city with a revolving door for what's fashionable. It was in the movies, but I've gotten a taste of it, first hand, writing this blog.

That is, I now inhabit bars and coffeehouses, the epitome of the scene I witness at the bookstore in the World Trade Center. I have my phone/handspring coupled with a foldable keyboard, e-mailing my blogs that get posted automatically, and the folks here in NY are simply mesmerized by the gadgetry, not knowing that if it were another time - a pre-Bush era - they would have been flicking their cigarettes saying, "Oh my God, that's so yesterday."

Suffice it to say, my little retro gadgetry seems groundbreaking today. Sure, there's something to be said that it's only now where you can e-mail yourself blog postings, surf on your phone, listen to music and chat with your friends all at once and with the comfort of storing the whole experience in your shirt pocket. Back when this gadgetry was stocked in the local electronics boutiques, perhaps the constellation of technologies wasn't ripe for the thing to make any sense.

For what it's worth, this "lost" technology points to something more problematic than in-and-out of fashion gizmos. Probably what's worth noting is that at the time that savvy tech journalists were writing reviews, aside from New Yorkers most folks never really caught on to the idea. I got gawking looks back when I first began using this stuff for writing, and the awe in people's faces continues to this day.

What's really worth noting is that, even today, there is an arsenal of tools available to most people. Powerful tools. Artillery for a modern life of situating oneself comfortably in one's own ad-hoc nexus of computer ecology tailored specifically for one's needs. These tools are floating out there for anyone to grab (for instance in the new explosion of Web Widgets). And, it seems to me that what's holding back the floodgate of a downright revolution to how we approach each other and how we approach the world, is not the lack of means, but the lack of utilizing what's here right now to its fullest extent.
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