Sorry, I didn't get the name The perils and prices of being wired


WHEN I WAS a child, I knew I was in trouble when my mother yelled my whole name, as in "Wendell Ray Cochran, you get in here right this minute!" Oh, for those simpler times, before I became a citizen of the wired world. Those were the days when if I could get out of earshot I was safe from chores or punishment. And in that quieter past I only had to answer to one name.

Not anymore. Today, you can reach me electronically, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I must be the easiest man in the world to reach out and digitally touch. These days I have to keep a memo in my electronic organizer just to keep track of my various online identities and their associated passwords. Let's see which ones I can recite more or less from memory.

There's;;; WCochran Pathfinder; wcochran at ESPN, Cochranw at; and don't forget good old 73067,

Recently, some indecipherable string of numbers came as the password for my subscription to an e-mail discussion group. User names as well as passwords for the New York Times, RTKNET and I'm sure several others are somewhere in a lost cluster in my brain's hard drive. You'd think that a college professor would be smart enough to at least use the same password for each of these accounts. You'd be wrong. For one thing, the university has three computer systems, which, while they all are kind enough to refer to me affectionately as wc9923a, all want different passwords. Of course, even my mother isn't simply "Mom" anymore. She's got a couple of e-mail accounts, too.

My telephone situation is nearly as confusing. Three telephone companies are proud to call me Dear Customer. Others call, longingly, on a weekly basis, seeking to sign me up. There's the unlisted number at home in Arlington, the number for my small computer consulting firm in Arlington, the fax number for the home business, the university office phone, the university fax number, the cellular phone number, and another number at a Shenandoah Valley getaway farm.

Even if there aren't live voices at the end of any of these numbers, there are, rest assured, voice mail and answering machines, all of which need codes to check the messages. The " only place I've drawn the line is at a beeper or pager or voice-mail account; and if you think those ads showing a guy taking a phone call while blasting out of a sand bunker are going to get my account, think again.

There are other wires in my life. The cable guy in Arlington and the PrimeStar satellite dish out in the valley make sure I'm never far from CNN, C-SPAN, and a dozen channels with the same infomercial featuring smarmy guys from Vegas pushing the latest line on Sunday's game or some undernourished blonde urging me to come see her after my abs get in rock-hard shape.

But, hey, if I ever need reruns of HBO's Dennis Miller in Spanish, there they are. The satellite has two country music video channels. Unfortunately, you can't tape one while you watch the other. I confess I would if I could.

Oh, you need a password to order movies off the satellite. And, to check the account activity, the satellite company telephones the receiver at odd hours of the night - the disk has its own phone jack. There's a chip in the receiver, and the company can download new configurations automatically.

Of course, you shouldn't think I'm a gadget freak. When we installed a furnace this summer, I was able to resist a new thermostat that I could call, presumably from the cellular phone, to turn on the heat. I figured a programmable one with a digital readout and two cool LED lights, green and amber, was good enough. And as I said, no pagers on the golf course sounds like an excellent rule to me - at least a three-stroke penalty and loss of your new graphite-titanium Great Balls of Fire Driver.

In one sense or another, I can justify nearly all this wiredness because my world revolves around information and information technology. But it sure is easy to see why a whole lot of folks would look at this confusing combination of digits and wires and throw up their hands until some more order is imposed.

Finding some way to unify one's self electronically certainly would simplify things and perhaps persuade a lot of late adopters to start taking advantage of the benefits of being connected - like access to two-week-old Dilberts.

This tangle of wires, accounts and multiple providers presents another issue. Cost. Basic computers continue to fall in price, though a fairly standard model is still more expensive than the annual per capita income of most of the world. But that's a one-time cost. The support costs add up quickly as well. Just mailing all these bills is a couple of bucks a month. (My wife refuses to subscribe to a really neat online bill-paying service.)

Our monthly household telecommunications tab - telephone, cable, Internet, etc. - averages, according to Quicken, more than $300 - and that doesn't count the magazines and books and games and new software and new hardware or computer maintenance. Even if it can be justified in a professional sense, and is partly tax-deductible, that's a steep price. It's unmanageable for many families, unthinkable for those who don't have an overwhelming need to be connected.

The other price we pay for being wired is time. I spend several hours in a typical day checking e-mail and dropping in on various Internet sites. Listening to voice mail takes another chunk of minutes. Again, it's time that I feel obliged to spend, and I enjoy it. But for a family with two small children, two jobs and a house, just logging on for 10 minutes to read e-mail can seem like an unwarranted luxury.

Besides, it requires way too much tinkering around: Call the Internet service provider, open the mail program, wait for the download and read and reply to the messages, open the Web browser and type in http://... and so on and so forth.

Computers and their software probably never will be quite as simple to operate as televisions or newspapers, but an industry that hopes to become a mass medium has to compare itself to those models when it comes to ease of use.

There's more I'd like to tell you, but it's time to check messages. ... Oh, here's one from fcochran -- also known as Mom.

Wendell Cochran is an assistant professor in the school of communications at American University in Washington. He teaches computerassisted journalism, among other things.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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