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By Joel Klebanoff

Remotely Personal

I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember (and young enough to not have forgotten everything you ever knew) the 1981 AT&T marketing campaign, "Reach Out and Touch Someone." No company can run that campaign today because, if it did, it would be accused of promoting harassment. People are much more sensitive about stuff like that than they used to be.

Of course, AT&T was speaking metaphorically. What it really meant, even though it said it rather obliquely, was that it deeply and dearly hoped that we would all spend great gobs of money—preferably as much as we could possibly afford, if not more—on long-distance charges to talk to loved ones and others, preferably lots of others, who, because of the geography separating us, we couldn't literally reach out and touch. A couple of recent news items brought this whole "touching but not touching" thing to mind and led me to conclude that technology is definitely getting out of hand. Literally.

As a new book author, the first item is going to be difficult for me to write about. I worry (what, me worry?) about being misunderstood and, as a result, offending people who I hold very dear, namely that rare breed of individuals who actually enjoy my writing and have bought my book, BYTE-ing Satire. You see, the news item is about a remote signing device, named LongPen, developed by a company set up by author Margaret Atwood and a business partner of hers. According to an article published in the Globe and Mail and based on an Associated Press newswire item, Atwood invented the device, a remote-controlled robotic pen, so that authors could do book signings miles, and even continents, away from book buyers.

Here's the part that I'm afraid people will misunderstand: In order to explain why I think this invention is a waste of ingenuity, I feel the need to mention that I don't understand why book buyers want their books signed at all. How does the author's signature on a book enhance the reader's enjoyment of it or, in the case of non-fiction, the worth of the information it provides? I don't get it.

I should admit here that I once did have an author sign my copy of his book, but I did it just to be polite. I attended a speech by an academic whose theories interest me. The talk was part of a day-long program. During the break, the speaker's most recent book, which was the subject of his speech, was on sale in the lobby. I had planned to buy it eventually, but I was going to wait and get it later at a bookstore or online. Then I thought, "What the heck, I'm here. I've nothing else to do during the break, so I might as well buy it now." When I got to the head of the line, I saw that the author was, without asking the purchasers, signing his books as they were being bought. My first reaction was to shout, "Don't even think of defacing with your stupid signature the book that I've just spent good money on, you arrogant little jerk," but I thought that would be rather rude, and the "little" part of "little jerk" would have been ridiculous since, like most of the adult population, he was taller than me (and, like most of the adult population, probably able to beat the crap out of me if, for some reason, he was so antagonized that he became eager to do so), so I stood there quietly while he signed it.

The reason for my apprehension about mentioning this is that I've already fulfilled a couple of people's requests to sign their copies of my book. I don't want either of them to misconstrue the above as suggesting that I think any less of them for asking for my signature. Quite the contrary; I might not understand it, but I was flabbergasted and honored beyond words to learn that they thought there was some value in having my signature on their copy.

I would certainly never sign a book against the purchaser's will, but if we ever find ourselves in the same place when you have your copy of my book in your hand and you want me to sign it, just ask. I'd be happy to. Nonetheless, given my inability to understand why you would value my signature, please don't take offense if I first verify that you haven't inserted some carbon paper and a check below the page you want me to sign. If you do manage to slip one past me and the check is for a large amount, you'll probably want to bring a catcher's mitt to make sure the check doesn't get away from you when you try to cash it.

Let me be clear so there's no mistake. It's true that I don't see the value that anyone gets from an author's signature, but if I thought it would help sell enough additional copies of my book, I'd prick my finger and sign them with my own blood. (Just so you know, I'm only kidding about that. You'd have to buy a few thousand copies before I'd agree to sign more than five or ten of them that way.)

Since I don't understand the value of an author's in-person signing of a book, I really don't comprehend this long-distance signature thing. The article wasn't particularly clear on how it works, but here you have a machine that, I assume, digitizes an author's hand movements during a signing, sends those signals to a remote location, and then uses the transmitted zeros and ones to control a robotic pen that writes the author's "signature" on a book in the remote location. I've got an idea. Why doesn't the publisher just digitize the signature and print it on every copy of the book as part of the normal printing process? It seems to me that would save an awful lot of bother, some communications bandwidth, and a heck of lot of expensive technology. What's the difference between the two techniques? I don't get it.

The second news item was about another new gadget that I don't get. On March 8, 2006, Yahoo News carried a Reuters story about some researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who have come up with long-distance wine glasses. Obviously, that requires a little explanation. The way it works is you get two wine glasses that have a bunch of sensors, red light-emitting diodes, and a wireless transmitter/receiver built into them. When you lift one of the glasses, the partner glass lights up. When you put the glass to your lips, the partner glass glows brightly.

I'll admit that this has a very high gee-whiz, cool factor to it, but that, apparently, wasn't the inventors' primary objective. The glasses are supposed to be romantic. According to the MIT researchers who invented them, the glasses can help to make up for the lack of social interaction that lovebirds (that's the term used in the Reuters story; I assume they meant people, not small Old World parrots) miss when they're apart. One of the two researchers was quoted as saying that the glasses will "help people feel as if they were sharing a drinking experience together." That may be so, but one thing I can tell you for certain is that geography is still going to conspire to prevent you from getting any nookie from your long-distance partner that night, which makes it all sound sort of like...well...sort of like my life, if you must know the truth.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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