Taking the Internet for a Ride

Chances are, someone is sitting in the back of a purple taxicab on a New York street at this very moment, wondering how to use the Internet connection provided by Yahoo!. With just 10 of the city’s 12,000-plus cabs hooked up, though, chances are much better that right now a whole lot of cab passengers are cruising Big Apple streets while reading the paper or talking on a cell phone.

The odds are very strong that the next time you ride in a cab — even in Manhattan — you won’t have Internet access. But don’t worry. You don’t need it. In fact, almost no one does.

Sunny, with a Chance of Overload

A Yahoo! spokesperson said that taxi passengers can do all manner of things with the new Web hookups, from checking the weather (looking at the sky often works for this) to ordering movie tickets.

To be sure, the opportunity to while away some time while sitting in New York traffic is appealing. Checking the headlines or a stock quote beats staring out the window at cars moving one foot per minute.

But when it comes to having a constant umbilical cord to the Internet, the Yahoo! experiment underscores the fact that the need doesn’t exist. Why else would the company hook up just 10 cabs? Why else would Yahoo! have abandoned a similar trial program in San Francisco — a stone’s throw from the most-wired little valley on the planet?

The fact is, only a tiny percentage of the population feels a need to have continuous access to the Web. Notice, I said “feels the need.” Even the most hyper-connected people on the planet probably would probably agree that electronic data is not an essential bodily fluid.

Blank Stare

Last year, at a high-tech exposition in Boston, a sponsor established a massive station of Web kiosks in one of the city’s busiest retail and office complexes. A man in a suit walked up to one of the machines, followed the prompts, and then stared at the screen, fingers poised over the keyboard.

There he was — presumably on his lunch hour or between sessions at the conference — connected to a machine capable of accessing more than a billion pages of information. He could “go” anywhere, learn anything. But he just stared. After a while, he seemed agitated. What was wrong? Surely, any cell-phone toting, Web-literate citizen of the digital age could find some use for such amazing technology.

After a while, the man shrugged and walked away. Hoping to avoid that sense of futility, I went to a nearby kiosk with a specific purpose in mind: to check my e-mail. Which I did. I had four messages, including a couple about fairly pressing business matters.

What’s the Rush?

I read my mail, and then found myself staring at the screen. I wasn’t about to conduct business in such a public place, after all. Besides, I was out of the office for the afternoon and my e-mail correspondents knew that. They could wait three hours until the conference ended and I could get back to my desk.

All I gained from my five minutes of hooking up was the knowledge that I had a lot more work ahead of me before I could call it a day — and a sense of dread that would stay with me all afternoon.

Then, I too experienced a flash of helplessness as I considered the vast information real estate in front of me, and I walked away.

While a few people might find marginal uses for Internet access in taxis, it is primarily a novelty that will draw a lot of shrugs. The same goes for Web-enabled cell phones and PDAs. Most people have no need to be so hyper-connected. At least not yet.

Now I know that news has become a continuous stream rather than a 24-hour block, neatly wrapped and delivered on my doorstep. And I know that stock prices can move dramatically in a matter of minutes. But I’m not ready to be force-fed a nonstop information diet, everywhere and all the time. I think a lot of people share that sentiment.

Cell Block One

The anywhere/anytime Web push is an extension of the mobile phone industry’s campaign to make people feel they cannot do without their phone connections for a single moment — a campaign that has achieved massive success by any measure, with hundreds of millions of cell phones now in use.

The technology exists, so why not take the next logical step? Why shouldn’t we be continuously hooked up to the Web?

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the Zeitgeist, but trust me — there are still a few people out there who don’t have cell phones. (Gasp!) Their phones are connected to their walls at home and they like it that way.

Maybe they fear technology a bit, but I like to think they’re a little smarter than the pack. When we’re being sold an idea rather than a product, we are nevertheless targets of a sales job — a fact that is easy to miss. Sometimes we buy into an idea without even thinking about it. We let ourselves get brainwashed.

Digital Backlash?

Those who intend to live by the Web should consider the possibility that trying to convince the rest of us that we need to be wired could result in a mighty backlash. There may be more to lose than to gain. There must be a limit to the number of kiosk experiences a human can endure before the brain screams, “No more Internet!”

I don’t think we need to test that limit. Consider this: Most people will go to sleep tonight and be out of touch for six, seven, even eight hours. The world will churn on. Overseas markets will rise and fall, deals will be made, sports events will run their courses, headlines change.

A large segment of the world’s population will be oblivious to it all. And, I dare say, blissful in their ignorance.

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