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Palm Someday

By Annalee Newitz

A COUPLE OF JUNKIES stole my damn PalmPilot on the 9 bus, going from downtown San Francisco to somewhere else. The bus was insanely crowded, so we were all squished together like a pickpocket's wet dream. I've been ripped off on San Francisco buses before, so my wallet was snug in my jeans pocket. But my PalmPilot was just sitting there innocently in one of the outer pockets on my backpack.

When I felt somebody rummaging lightly in my pack, I turned around, faced the smiling, cracked-out duo behind me and zipped up the half-opened pouch. "Ha," I thought to myself. "Caught 'em in the act." But they had the last laugh, because when I checked in my backpack later, I realized that they'd already pilfered the Palm when I "caught" them. It was a pretty old model--a Palm III--and it was covered in stickers. The biggest sticker said "chronic" in wide, loopy letters. Nice bit of irony there, and also yet another feature of the little machine that would have made it utterly worthless. If they were lucky, those junkies probably got about 10 bucks for it.

I'd backed up my info about a month ago on my laptop, so there was very little that I lost--a few new phone numbers, a few appointments. I didn't keep things of dire importance on my Palm like some people do. There were no credit card numbers or notes about top-secret meetings, and no vital information about my life. In fact, I don't think my name appeared anywhere on the device. But I kept all my day-to-day stuff in there, like schedules, maps, phone numbers, jotted addresses and reminders. Losing it, as a sympathetic friend pointed out, is like losing one of the more boring and useful parts of my brain.

I suppose I should be vaguely worried that the junkies are going to decide to call all my contacts and breathe heavily into the phone or whatever, but I'm not worried at all. Probably they have no interest in using the damn thing, since if they did, they would have realized how worthless it was and not bothered to steal it.

Those junkies nabbed my Palm because they had fallen for tech advertising hype. Technology still has the lustre of wealth to it, especially in places like San Francisco, where the high-tech industry glows sumptuously from billboards and captures front-cover newspaper headlines. Obviously, if something is "technology," it must be worth a lot of money. This is an example of how our collective imagination--fueled, of course, by pop culture--lags behind economic reality.

For anyone who works intimately with technology, and who therefore has a decent grasp of its true market value (one hopes), it's obvious that just because a little gadget is stuffed with a chip and some RAM doesn't mean that it's expensive. In fact, there are plenty of devices that are RAM-free which are far more valuable than a PDA or even a laptop--a Herman Miller chair, for example, or a pair of designer glasses frames. Not to mention motorcycle jackets.

What those junkies' techno-lust signifies ultimately is that the value of technology is still a mystery to most people. This is different from technology itself being mysterious. One may be baffled by a BIOS or a file manager and still know that a laptop can be had for 900 bucks.

But I think many of us, particularly in the Silicon Bay, are about to experience serious demystification.

As the recession deepens, I doubt that people are going to keep on thinking that high tech equals wealth. We're living in the tail end of the tech glamour era. In the next decade, it will become obvious to everyone that PDAs are worth about as much as a dayrunner choked with dead, processed trees.

Junkies will steal PalmPilots from each other. The homeless guy with a stereo in the park will be replaced by a homeless guy with a laptop.

Right now, our luxurious widgets and silver-wrapped wafers of RAM are being made under mind-bogglingly shitty conditions in numerous impoverished nations. That our little info-baubles are valuable has always been a corporate-sponsored lie: your "high tech" is just a bunch of low-grade parts shoved inside cheap plastic casing. Why do we value our chips more than the people who make them? Their labor is worth far more than we are willing to admit.


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who hopes the junkies got a good rock out of it.She's at spocksbrain@techsploitation.com.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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