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Wi-Fi Nation: Can You Mail Me Now?:

The airlines are betting on connectivity.  Not “connectivity” in that you’ll now be able to fly non-stop to your childhood home in Koshkonong, Missouri.   But rather that you’ll pay up to 13 bucks extra for Wi Fi while you’re on board an airliner.    There it is: The price of your addiction.  Can’t stay off Net.  Must check Facebook; Nancy’s dog might be having puppies.  Must Twitter about this sandwich I just bought from the flight attendant that, while pricey, cost less than the hookup enabling me to tell you about the sandwich.

Santa Monica has been leading the way in making our city all Wi Fi, so I guess I shouldn’t grouse about efforts to wire-up planes.   There’s a Luddite part of me that would rather not have satellite Internet signals competing with the flight captain’s ability to, say, radio for help.  But I get it that some things are inevitable and that we’re not far from the day when we’ll watch movies on our telephones.  Wait… I meant, from the day that we’ll launch devices in our homes from our remote computers.  Wait… I meant porn at a mouse click.  Wait… I meant… a thing on your car dashboard that tells you where to turn… in French.

But I’m not (yet) sold on the need for a Wi Fi nation.   Need and demand are different things. We never needed i-Phones. I never heard a fire chief say, “We could have saved this neighborhood from the blaze, but our phones just didn’t have the ‘apps’.” Yet there was demand for i-Phones even before they hit the stores. There’s some amount of demand for Twitter, but I can’t conceive of any argument that we needed Twitter.  Ah ha, you say… What about all the Twitter reports that got out of Iran during the violent election protests?   Yes, an optional line of communication proved to be a utility.  But that’s not the essence of Twitter or its commercial appeal.  In Iran Twitter became an available second line while Tyrant Dad tied up the phone in the kitchen.

Never mind… we’re still going to keep getting all this wiring and connectivity. But on the eve of Wi-Fi airplanes, I’m going to cite just a few examples where I think tech forward has become backwards.  Not because any one person is going to turn this tide, but because a tide is only truly influential when it has provable strength.  Hence the lack of museums dedicated to the Flowbee hair cutting device.

By now you’ve heard that Twitter and Facebook are losing followers.  I think we’re going to see a lot of ebb and flow in these websites events, but forgive my nature in thinking that they all ultimately move toward commerce and away from “free access for the people, etc.”  Many predict that, any minute now, a large corporation is going to disembowel YouTube and the only footage we’ll get for free will be old clips of Sandy Duncan selling Wheat Thins.  Thus am I skeptical about sites that can save us, or even be our non-corporate affiliated friends.  Remember NAPSTER?  That was fun, while it lasted.

I’d love to host a panel on this: “Has Cell Phone Technology Improved Our Quality of Life?”   When parents get a call from their child, checking in and stating emphatically that they will be home for dinner, it feels like the future has properly served us.  Then I look to my right in traffic and observe that the person in the next car is texting, their head bent down to the screen, while driving.  A popular jab at texting goes “It’s worse than drunk driving.”  I disagree: Texting behind the wheel means you’re not driving at all.  A modest proposal?  Anyone busted for texting while driving must read aloud the messages that they were sending, on the six o clock news.  Show everybody what was so damn important.

Before you round up a posse to hang Grandpa Amish for striking out at our brave new world, let me say that without e-mail my life would be very different.  Each week I write these columns and they go on to print without my ever having to get in a car and foul the air with exhaust. No dolphins are killed in the writing of this column.  So I like being connected, and you can all set your pitchforks down.

I’m asking about the notion of always, always, always being able to uplink or be online.  We’ve already added to our world a large number of fake trees that are, in fact, costumed cell phone towers.   Because, you know, all that wireless telephony just had to go forward. Especially for what it meant economically.  Now there’s this drive to make sure you can flip open your computer anywhere and it will link.  In a deli , at the beach, or on an airplane.  Many years ago (cue twangy “rock n roll”) parents objected to small transistor radios that allowed young people to enjoy music anywhere.  Over time transistor radios became synonymous with safety, as part of the gear you packed into a bomb shelter.  Demand became real need.  Let’s hope that happens with Wi Fi, and that we’re not deep into some social site at the very moment we should have noticed something flying over our heads in the off-line so-called “real” world sky.

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