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By Joel Klebanoff

Calling All Children

My loyal reader will know that I usually use this space to whine and complain, not so much about technology itself, but about our use of it and about the ridiculous applications that technology vendors try to trick us into believing are the next big things that will radically change our lives for the better. This weekly exercise in lamenting can get quite depressing after a while, so I have to thank Victoria, the intrepid editor, for directing my attention to one vendor's technology application that is overwhelmingly positive. I need my spirits raised every once in a while; otherwise, I'd go crazy (or should I say crazier). Consequently, I warmly welcomed this news item. According to an April 5, 2006, New York Times article, the Walt Disney Corporation is introducing a wireless phone service targeted at parents who might want to give it to their children.

Considering all of my past tirades, my loyal reader is probably expecting me to rail long and loud against the very concept of cell phones for children. He or she is, no doubt, waiting for me to shout, "What the hell do children need cell phones for? They should be in school learning, doing homework, or outside getting some fresh air and playing with their friends." It's not going to happen. I'm not going to say that, shouting or not. If it were a question of an ordinary mobile phone service that an exceptionally greedy and morally bankrupt company was using to further enrich itself by trying to employ fear and guilt to get parents to buy the service for their terribly spoiled children then, yes, that's exactly how I'd feel. But that's definitely not the case with this new phone. Let me reemphasize the negative in the previous sentence in case any of Disney's lawyers are reading this. I think this is a good idea.

Disney's service allows parents to prevent the use of the phone during certain hours, such as when their children should be paying attention to a teacher in school. Parents will also be able to program emergency numbers, such as a home phone number or 911, into the phone. The article wasn't specific on this point, but I assume children will be able to dial those numbers even when the phone's usage is otherwise prohibited. In addition, parents will be able to restrict the amount of talk time, text messaging, and other services used on the phone each month so the charges can be kept to a reasonable limit. The phones can also be blocked from calling certain numbers so that children can't use them to, for example, call sex lines and the other nefarious phone services that are available today.

All of that is excellent, but the greatest benefit of this new phone is that parents will be able, by using a Global Positioning System service that is provided with the phone contract, to check on the location of their child's phone by logging into a Web site or by checking a service available through the parent's own cell phone.

This sounds fantastic to me. I'm a championship worrier. One of the reasons I'm childless is that, if I were a father, I'd be so intensely worried whenever my children were out of my sight for more than a few minutes that after an hour's absence I'd have to commit suicide, which seems like a rather steep price to pay for a brief period of fatherhood. The other, much more relevant reason I don't have any offspring is that I haven't been able to find a woman crazy enough to want to live with me, let alone bear my children. But never mind.

This phone seems perfect for parents who approach my level of angst. Think about it. Their children will be able to use the phones to summon help in an emergency, but they won't be able to make or answer calls when they're supposed to be doing something else. As if that's not enough, parents will be able to put their minds at ease and reassure themselves that their children are always where they're supposed to be. Furthermore, parents can do all of this without having to accept the risk of their children bankrupting the family by running up exorbitant usage fees.

As great as they are for parents, these phones are even better for the children. Not only will they be able to get one of these phones when their parents probably wouldn't be willing to give them a normal cell phone, but now the kids will be able to get away with doing absolutely anything they want to do, no matter how strongly forbidden by their parents, without having to worry about their parents catching or stopping them. How do I figure that? Consider the following scenario.

I take you now to the suburban home of Sam and Edna Schleml and their teenage daughter, Elvira. Sam and Edna have just settled into the comfy couch in their living room for their usual four hours of evening television viewing. Sam suddenly perks up and asks, "Where's Elvira? I haven't seen her since dinner."

"She went to study trigonometry with her good friend, that nice, trustworthy girl who lives down the street, Betty Sue," responds Edna.

"Oh really?" says Sam, with suspicion dripping from his voice. "She's been acting awfully rebellious lately. I've got a bad feeling that she was lying to you and is off doing who knows what. She told you that only because she knew that's what you wanted to hear. I can't believe how incredibly gullible you are sometimes. I'm going to go find out where she really is."

Sam stomps off to the den, where he uses the family computer to log into the Disney Web site and check up on Elvira's true location. He returns a few minutes later, looking somewhat sheepish.

"I've got to stop being so suspicious," sighs Sam. "We've done well. We raised a good, conscientious, honest daughter. She's over at Betty Sue's house, exactly as she told you she would be. Please don't let her know that I didn't trust her. I'm so ashamed that I could possibly think that of her. And I'm so sorry for calling you gullible. Please forgive me."

Little do Sam and Edna know, but Elvira was at Betty Sue's, although only long enough to drop off her cell phone. Now she's with her childhood friend, little Johnny, who's no longer so little. They're busy doing all of the things that Sam was, but no longer is, terrified she might be doing.

Of course, Elvira will have to be careful about who she chooses to use as her alibi. Her friend is going to have to be a quick thinker in case Sam or Edna decides to call Elvira on her cell phone for some reason. "Hi, Mr. Schleml. This is Betty Sue…. Yes, Elvira was here, but she went over to Mary's house to study trig with her. Mary is so much better at it than I am. Elvira may not have mentioned Mary to you yet because her family just moved in a few days ago. Elvira would have gone there first rather than coming here, but this is the day when Mary goes to the old folks' home after school to do volunteer work, and she just got back a little while ago…. Oh, yes, well I would have gone with Elvira, but I have some chores to do around the house, and I wanted to finish them first…. Why is her cell phone here and not with her? Well, you know Elvira. She's very absent-minded when she's deeply engrossed in her studies. She just forgot it, that's all…. No, I'm sorry I don't have a phone number for Mary. Her parents are devout Old Order Amish, and they don't have a phone. In fact, now that I think of it, that's probably why Elvira left her phone here. She's so awesomely considerate that she wouldn't want to offend Mary's family. I've never seen anyone as respectful of her elders as Elvira. If you'd like, I could run over to Mary's and give Elvira a message. It really wouldn't be any trouble at all…. No? Well, OK, I won't bother then. Bye."

Oh yeah, this phone is going to be great. Kids will be able to do whatever the hell they want and parents will be able to deceive themselves into thinking that there's nothing to worry about. It sounds good to me.

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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