Independent Means

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, July 4, 1995

While e pluribus unum and “We the People” rank high as national catch phrases worth considering on this Independence Day, how about this alternative:
“You can take it with you.”
It’s optimistic, it’s can-do, it’s American.
We are a free people: free to move where we please – and to take along everything but the kitchen sink. What the hell, bring the kitchen sink, too. It’s made of lightweight aluminum, and it has its own folding base and graywater tank.
Our national mania in the techno-crazed ’90s is for still more freedom: freedom to jog with Janet Jackson wailing in our ears, to be cool and comfortable while we barrel down the highway at 70 mph, and to watch TV at the beach – even though we still can’t take cable along.
Nowadays, everything’s portable. Think about the elaborate picnic setups you will see at beaches and parks over the holiday: You may not notice many kitchen sinks, but you’ll see plenty of gas stoves, stereos, TVs, even espresso makers.
Yessir, you can take it with you. It’s the American way.
Is this a good thing?
Certainly, says Craig Sharp, pausing after a strenuous run along the American River bike trail.
“I don’t mind silence, but I run about 40 miles a week, and I like having my tunes, ” says Sharp, 32, motioning toward the “personal stereo” nestled in a belt pouch that’s specially designed to minimize jiggling. “I mean, why not?”
Although they were preceded by the transistor radio, the Sony Walkman and its many imitators are the quintessential portable consumer products. But they’re hardly the only ones. According to Audrey Guskey, a marketing consultant who teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and has worked with Kodak, General Motors and other manufacturers, the Walkman pointed the way for hundreds of products.
“The term “Walkman’ indicates you can use it while you’re doing something else, ” says Guskey. “And that’s what these products allow you to do. You can eat while you’re driving, fax while you’re computing, talk on the phone while you’re barbecuing. It was predicted that we would have more leisure time, but we have less – we’re spending more time at work – so we try to do as many things as we can at once.”
Sacramentan Denise Frante, 35, lounges in McKinley Park on a hot afternoon with a small Sony Watchman, a portable TV that allows her to watch her favorite soaps while watching her two kids, Mindy, 8, and Wilhelm, 6, who are playing nearby.
“We just couldn’t stay in the house any longer, ” Frante says. “It was too hot. So we’re here, they’re happy, and I’m happy. It’s easy.”
Bill Russo, a salesman, doesn’t think his portable technology is merely easy. It’s essential.
Russo looks up from concluding a cellular phone conversation while pumping gas into his Ford Bronco and says, “I couldn’t get everything done without this thing.” He regards his cellular phone with a mixture of admiration and vague resentment.
“It’s always with me, so I’m always available.”
Always available. Is this a good thing?
Joshua Meyrowitz is a professor in the department of communication at the University of New Hampshire and the author of the 1985 book “No Sense of Place.” He says it’s hard to say if this is good or not.
But, he says, it certainly is different.
“This is a new form of human organization, ” he says, speaking from his health club in Durham, N.H.
“It’s more like the placeless cultures of hunters and gatherer societies, where all the boundaries are blurred, the places for men and women and children, for work and play. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, but I don’t think people are very aware of the change.
“I think it would be a mistake to say it’s increased independence. Every new possibility leads to a new responsibility. New ideas of independence spin out new webs of dependency. I’m now expected to be able to get my messages anywhere I am in the world. The office is certainly boundless.
“I’m working out at the athletic club right now, but you were able to get ahold of me, so I’m not working out.
“I’m working.”
And that technology and new social structure lead to other social and cultural changes, says Meyrowitz.
“Just the sense of being inaccessible is socially taboo now, ” he says.
“If you try to reach someone and you can’t get them, you think, “What a weird person.’
“There’s the loss of the sense of appropriate behavior and roles. We’re seeing a renegotiation of a lot of things that used to be assumed. What’s the etiquette of being at a wedding and trying to close a business deal by cell phone? What is supposed to happen when you’re having a private conversation next to someone on a bus?”
Such questions will multiply as quickly as the number of leisure products spawned by miniaturization and computerization.
This process sometimes reaches absurd proportions. The Sharper Image, a chain store specializing in ingenious gadgets, offers an alarm clock for those who are far away from their loved ones.
For $25, you get the Magic Moments alarm clock, which wakes the sleeper not with a bell or buzz but with a short recording of a loved one’s voice.
“Good morning, Daddy, ” says the familiar voice. The clock frame also includes space for a 2-by-2-inch photograph of the loved one.
You can even take entire environments along, courtesy of the Portable Soother, also available at the Sharper Image.
The Portable Soother is a small, radio-sized, battery-operated sound generator that produces the sounds of different environments for your relaxation.
Stuck in a downtown hotel room with traffic noise leaking in? No problem. Just set the Soother to “countryside” and drift off to the chirps of crickets and the croaks of digital frogs.
Or if you’re stuck inland, set the Soother to “seaside” and bask in the recorded sounds of surf and sea gulls.
Is this cool or what?
And it’s only $90. Not bad for an entire environment.
And if your nose says the immediate environment is the problem, what can you do? What if your car is smoky or you live in a dusty, dry place or you have allergies? If you were at home, you could plug in the humidifier or air cleaner.
Well, for $35, you can buy a portable ionizer that plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter and removes dust and tiny airborne particles from your car’s air.
It is no accident that these items are often portable in the sense that they fit in your car. For the car is the original American symbol – as well as the means – of independence and mobility.
But even this has intensified. Images of cars cruising along country roads are now almost passe in automobile advertising. Now, we’re told, one needs a vehicle that can climb mountains that would have daunted Sir Edmund Hillary.
The dominant image of a car nowadays is of one sitting atop some unlikely pinnacle of rock that leaves the thoughtful viewer less likely to exclaim, “What an amazing car!” than, “How did they get it up there? Lift it by helicopter?”
And as more and more things fit into our cars, the more those cars will become like second homes.
“We’re going to see more and more activities in the car, ” says consultant Audrey Guskey. “Microwaves in the car, fax machines, meals – people are going to be working and living in their cars.”
Of course, some people have been doing that for years. They’re called retirees, and they drive huge buildings on wheels called motor homes, which manage to cram all the conveniences of home into something that can offer a new view out the kitchen window every morning.
Parked along a frontage road off Interstate 80 between Davis and Sacramento one recent morning, retirees Doreen and Frank Farris of Wilmington, Del., have just poked their heads out of their 23-foot Winnebago, where they spent the night after getting lost trying to find the Delta late in the evening.
“We just pulled over and went to sleep, ” says Frank Farris, turning down the sound on the Winnebago’s 19-inch TV. “We thought we’d do better trying in the daylight.”
The Farrises might well have found useful another product that will be on the general market sometime in the next few years: the Global Positioning System.
“We’re on the edge of another era in product development, ” says Jennifer Jarratt, a futurist based in Washington, D.C.
“How about being the first on your block with your own GPS?”
The Global Positioning System, long used by the military, is soon to be widely available, says Jarratt.
With it, one can home in on a satellite to find one’s latitude and longitude coordinates, which means that soon, cars will be outfitted with computers that can find routes on a map based on where you are. Or how about a topographical map beamed from the nearest satellite to help a hiker get over the next pass?
There are electronic tracking devices on the way that will have all kinds of possible uses. Also coming soon are electronic notebooks that send and receive faxes via wireless communications. And according to Jarratt, the Japanese are busily inventing “wearable computers” for people with a need for instant data.
We’re free!
But Robert Sommer, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the former director of that campus’s Center for Consumer Research, takes a somewhat less rosy view of this sort of freedom.
Although he admits that he enjoys his Walkman because he can listen to the news while gardening, he thinks that a lot of the independence brought by the new gadgets is an illusion.
And it may even mask an increased dependence on the larger social infrastructure.
“The automobile, for example, definitely freed people, ” Sommer says. “It gives you tremendous independence. But it created a whole new range of dependencies – on Mideast oil and mechanics and parts manufacturers – as well as problems such as traffic gridlock and smog.
“What I’m saying is, the concepts of dependence and independence need to be seen at different levels.
“Someone was just rescued in Yosemite because he brought his cellular phone with him, ” he notes.
“It was hailed by people as a sign of how useful these phones are. But bringing that cellular phone isn’t a sign of independence, it is an acknowledgment of dependence.”
Adds Sommer with a wry, challenging tone: “Show me two people who go into a wilderness area, one with a cellular phone and one without, and I’ll have no trouble guessing which one is the more independent.”

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