YOU ARE AT:Archived ArticlesLIBERATOR OR LEASH: EXPLORING PAGING'S LEGACY

LIBERATOR OR LEASH: EXPLORING PAGING’S LEGACY

As a trade news reporter covering the paging industry, I talk with all sorts of marketing and public-relations personnel, as well as company executives, who regularly impress upon me the many advantages of paging technology.

For the most part, I concur. Paging is a useful communications tool.

But to keep myself honest and objective, I keep two cartoons tacked to the bulletin board above my desk. The first is of two yogi-looking chaps sitting on a cliff in the lotus meditation position, with the sun shining above and mountain peaks in the background. One has a pager going off on his belt and the other looks at him and says “You’ll never attain perfect serenity until you get rid of that thing.”

The other is of a man and woman wearing shorts and sandals walking along a tropical beach with palm trees overhead and the sun setting into the ocean beyond. Both are wearing pagers, and the woman’s is beeping, to which the man laments, “Why can’t all the pagers fail during OUR vacation?”

Is that how paging is viewed outside the industry? Techno-analysts and PR flacks expound upon the liberating powers of paging. Motorola Inc. produces “What’s Your Social Paging I.Q.?” Does it have any affect on the outside world?

Why do people carry a pager if they’re going to complain when it works as intended?

The paging paradox

A paradox is at work here: Pagers provide freedom to leave the workplace and remain effective, yet by doing so they can reduce the quality of that freedom. You are attached to an “electronic leash.”

At least that is the argument presented by these cartoons, which speak to the love-hate relationship people can have with their pagers. Pagers are great because they allow people to be in touch all the time, but they’re a hassle because, well … they allow people to be in touch all the time.

A relative distrust of technology permeates every level of society. Technology in general was designed to make lives easier, but leisure time has decreased by 50 percent in the last decade-the same period when all these technological wonders came about. Why is that?

Perhaps these cartoons depict society’s frustration at technology for not delivering on its promise, using the pager as a symbol of that dissatisfaction.

“Since the industrial revolution, people have been asking whether technology is our mechanical slave, or are we a slave to it?” said Carroll Pursell, chair of the Department of History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, professor of history of technology and science, and author of “White Heat”-a companion text to the BBC series “Machines in America.” “I don’t think it’ll go away, and I don’t find it surprising either.”

He said similar feelings were present when the telephone was first introduced into widespread use. Now it’s the pager’s turn, along with e-mail and the Internet. Technology in all forms brings some degree of freedom, but freedom has its price.

“It increases their control, but in other areas of life, it undermines their control,” he said. The root of the problem, Pursell said, is that humans want to have their cake and eat it, too.

“We like a win-win situation,” he said. “When the gods really want to get you, they give you want you want … What we want is not clean and not well thought out. It’s often conflicted.”

Safe targets

Pagers, he said, are an interesting contemporary example of this. Pagers are safe targets at which we aim our ire. “The beeping of a pager is a minor annoyance, so we allow ourselves to be grumpy about it,” he said. But that grumpiness extends to issues far past beeping pagers, issues people don’t address because they are complicated or require too much of a life change to solve.

“This is a little window into our whole attitude of life at the end of the 20th century,” Pursell said. “We don’t have a lot of time to reflect on the contradictions of our own culture. (Paging) brings it to the surface. It gives us pause. It stands for that we work too much for what purpose. It stands for our love affair with technology.”

Dr. Larry Rosen also is exploring this. Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University, expert on human/computer dynamics and co-author of “TechnoStress,” a book addressing the psychology of technology.

Rosen says cartoons poking fun at technology are examples that we as a society have not yet come to terms with this rapidly growing new method of communication.

“There are no rules yet.” he said. “We’re looking at a technology where the psychology hasn’t quite caught up. We haven’t learned how to handle it psychologically yet.”

Part of the problem might be that a pager gives away a portion of control over your life. “You are guaranteeing access 24 hours a day,” Rosen said. “It can start off as a useful tool and turn into something that causes you stress.”

For instance, Rosen explains how people assign time boundaries to certain roles. At certain hours of the day, we wear our family hat and make the kids breakfast or dinner. At others, we wear our professional hat, dealing with clients and meeting deadlines.

“(People) expect to switch between certain roles within a particular time frame, which makes such transitions easier,” he and co-author Michelle Weil write in the book. “The most difficult and disruptive kind of role switching comes when we are caught by surprise. We do not typically expect to play out certain roles … at the same time, so they do not make for an easy back-and-forth transition. That’s why it is so disturbing to be at work and receive a telephone call from your child’s school, or to be at home and get a call from your boss.”

A pager enables this, for better or for worse. People get paged while in bed, at the movies, at dinner. It is intrusive by design. People don’t mind this is they are expecting important news or need to be reached with an emergency. But when used for frivolous reasons, it can become an annoyance.

The need for boundaries

“The proliferation of communication technology over the last few years has given us a multitude of ways to find and connect with others,” Rosen and Weil write. “However, we are doing so with something akin to impulsive abandon, not … considering whether it is a true emergency before paging someone. Because we can get to them, we do.”

This speaks in direct contradiction to paging marketers’ assertions that a pager is a great tool to send little notes, like “I love you,” or whatever. Marketers vehemently insist that such pages are a welcome break in a stressful work day. Rosen said studies prove a beeping pager causes the body to release adrenaline into the bloodstream and causes the heart rate to increase, both stress-related symptoms, and making the alert sound more “pleasant” is not likely to change this.

As such, smart companies don’t ignore the downside of wearing a pager, he added.

“A smart company is one that addresses the psychological issues up front. I think the smart companies are not going to ignore the negative side. Acknowledge it and help your customers. Give them guidelines. The more you can help a consumer use your technology, the more that technology is going to sell.”

Industry response

To an extent, some recent technological innovations have better addressed these issues. Motorola makes pagers with private-time settings, which owners can program to remain silent during predetermined hours each day.

Guaranteed messaging allows users to turn off their pagers for an hour or two and still receive any messages that may have been sent during that time.

These services return control back to the hands of the user to a degree by allowing them to set the boundaries Rosen mentioned.

The way in which a society communicates is in many ways the backbone of what makes us a culture. When a new mode of communication, such as paging, is introduced, the nature of the culture is altered.

According to Pursell and Rosen, human beings fear ch
ange. The rapid pace of technological evolution makes us feel as if we’re playing catch up, serving it rather than it serving us. These cartoons essentially liken the noise of a beeping pager to a master calling his servant, playing on this societal fear that we are slaves to technology.

It’s important to remember-while we concern ourselves with raising revenues per subscriber and rolling out new networks with new technologies-at the other end of these gizmos are real people with real emotions and real fears that must be addressed.

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