All Dialed In

Summer-as-we-knew-it died a few years ago when people started talking about being "dialed in."

Summer isn't really summer any more. Summer-as-we-knew-it died a few years ago when people started talking about being "dialed in."

I figured this out sitting on a boat last weekend, flipping through the July 12 issue of Newsweek. No, it's not the very latest issue of Newsweek, the one for sale right now. Strange, isn't it, that I'm even mentioning a week-old issue of Newsweek? In this dialed-in world, it's generally understood that we talk only about this week's issue, or better yet, next week's. Stick to the present and the immediate future. All else is pointless.

But I raise this moldy Newsweek because it's summer, which used to be the time when the only magazines you saw were old ones—the older, the better. And if you found them in a damp stack under the Yahtzee box on the bottom shelf in the contact-paper-lined pantry of a rented cottage and you spent an hour communing with them on a lumpy, listing couch, half involved in the wilted pages, half wondering if dust motes are actually magnetized or it just seems that way, then you were living pretty high. Argosy. Reader's Digest. Ancient issues of Life with astronauts and Kennedys beaming toothily from their covers.

So I was on the boat reading that aging, decrepit Newsweek, which had a story on the coming importance of the "youth vote," and the stunning news that "the current crop of young voters, especially 18-to-24-year-olds, are different from earlier generations in their approach to civic involvement." The youth-vote story is kind of like the 17-year cicadas in that it's reborn over and over like clockwork, except this a four-year brood. But what really struck me was the headline: "They're Young. They're Dialed In. And They Could Prove the Difference This Fall. Tapping the YouthVote."

They're dialed in. It's a phrase you see all the time now, especially on the sports pages. "Singh's fluid swing was dialed in Thursday like an airplane on automatic pilot," The New York Times reported last month. "Every fairway looked wider. Every pin looked more inviting." But what does it mean? I asked Paul McFedries, who runs, a Web site that tracks new additions to the language. " 'Dialed in,' " he e-mailed, "has for some time now described someone who is totally focused on something or who is completely 'in tune' with something.... Newsweek's young voters are 'dialed in' because they understand the big issues, they know why those issues are important, and they're motivated to do something about them."

McFedries noted that "dialed in" has replaced the old '60s verb "grok," which came from Robert Heinlein's science-fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land; it meant to understand something in a deep or intuitive way. Grokking was big in that hippy-dippy era when summer was a time for going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair. This summer, we're all going to Boston and New York with our BlackBerrys. And notice the subtle shift in meaning. Depth and intuition have given way to something relatively superficial: being "in tune" with issues, motivated.

McFedries says the phrase may have originated in the way we tuned an old radio dial until the reception was just right. To me, it evokes telephones and computers, the wired connections that knit us all together around the clock. Dialing in sounds better than dialing up, which everyone knows is for dinosaurs. Faster, more inside. Like being in on the coolest conference call in the world, or having your whole life on a perfect broadband connection. Always on.

The ubiquity of the phrase in the media suggests that it has become a cultural ideal, even in a season that used to be all about getting unplugged. Now, to be unplugged is weird and faintly dishonorable. If a cellphone rings, you answer it. If news breaks, you're up on it. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Remember summer journalism? The silly stories, the filler fare about hot movies and books, zeitgeist doodlings, eternal trend stories about sexual politics. They are still with us, and more of them than ever, but they've lost their old, barely concealed frivolity and taken on an air of dialed-in importance.

The cover story of the same Newsweek was "The New Infidelity," about a purported rise in the number of married women having affairs. It's all happened quite recently, the magazine reports, suggesting that this great national explosion of unfaithfulness is a step forward for women. "As women grow more powerful, they're more likely to feel, as men traditionally have, that they deserve a little bit of nooky at the end (or in the middle) of a long, busy day." The piece was illustrated with sexy underwear, pictures of famous philandering women (Hester Prynne, Elizabeth Taylor), and various totems of our overscheduled lives, including a Palm Zire with "5:30: Special Workout Session" scrawled on it.

Get it? Are you dialed in to the new nooky?

The July 19 issue of Newsweek—sorry, I just couldn't stay away from the beautiful "now"—gives us a photo of the media darlings of the moment, enjoying the modern equivalent of an old political summer idyll. American politicians used to play football on the lawn at Hyannisport. Now we get Elizabeth and John Edwards on an airplane, turned away from each other, talking on separate phones. John Kerry and Teresa Heinz Kerry are visible in the background, doing exactly the same thing. They're "wired for battle," says the caption. How glamorous to be dialed in, a quatre.

Does anyone know how to dial out?