Off the Grid: The New Frontier of Cool?

By Ellen Ruppel Shell
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I tucked into a coveted window seat on a soon-to-be-packed train from New York to Boston with big plans: grade student papers, catch up on some reading, grab a well earned nap. But no sooner had I settled in than a sweetly dressed, well coiffed but frazzled looking woman slammed into the aisle seat next to mine, mouthed a dazzling but silent hello, and unpacked an arsenal: laptop, Blackberry, cell phone. Yes, a Blackberry AND a cell phone. Excusing herself (this time, audibly), she reached across me to plug the laptop into the outlet near my feet, booted up, and though it was well into the dinner hour, proceeded as if the workday had just begun: typing, texting, emailing and talking ALL AT THE SAME TIME. As an avid observer of human behavior, I found this fascinating: how did she manage to juggle all these seemingly disparate activities at once? But as the long minutes ticked on, this remarkable display of endurance and dexterity progressed from awesome to awful.

Summoning tricks I had learned from a recent (perhaps ill advised) spurt of yoga classes, I tried hard to ignore the spectacle and concentrate on my own thoughts, but to no avail. Despite my greatest efforts to ignore them, I found myself engrossed in the details of this woman's plans. Should her friends start dinner without her, or wait until she arrived? If they ordered for her would the pizza be cold by the time she pulled into her stop, in Providence?

I had no right to object, of course, this was "business class" after all, and this woman was doing business, at least of a sort. So rather than raise my voice and ask her to lower hers, I raised myself, book in hand, and walked to the cafe car in search of coffee and a bit of peace. I bet you know already how that worked out -- every seat at the cafe counter was filled with important looking people in business clothes frowning into space, ear to mobile, deep in talk. A cacophony of intense, serious deal making, punctuated by the occasional gruff and knowing chuckle, more than filled the space. I bought my coffee, returned to my seat, stuck a pair of earbuds into my ears, directed my Zune dial to Dylan, and cranked it up until my Blackberry wielding, texting, emailing seatmate departed -- perhaps to cold pizza (imagine the suspense) -- in Providence.

So, this got me thinking: in an era when mobile technology is price accessible to any kid with a paper route, all this texting, typing, and talking no longer conveys a signal of "I'm important." Indeed, today wearing a Blue Tooth behind one's ear while driving to work in a shiny new BMW is about as sexy as wearing a pocket protector while pedaling a tricycle outfitted with a thick, well padded seat cushion.

So what constitutes status and -- being bold here -- sex appeal in the land of the eternally wireless? Possible answer: the opportunity to go through an entire morning, train ride, even day, with no technology-enabled distractions at all! Imagine NOT having to stay in touch -- with your boss, your mate, your kids? Imagine the luxury of not only saying, but meaning when you say: "I'll be out of range this weekend." Imagine going long, luxurious minutes, hours, days not responding to emails, not even LOOKING at emails. Imagine being willing and able to turn your back on all that...and not disappearing, or fearing that you will.

If you can not only imagine that, my friends, but do that, you've really arrived!

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/off-the-grid-the-new-frontier-of-cool/56389/