Lost and found in the new millennium


WORKING FOR The Sun in Columbia means never having to ask, "Where'd I park?"

No more walking down from the parking garage roof, floor by floor until I can say: Oh, yeah, dummy, there it is! All the cars are on one level outside my new office.

OK, so parking is not the real problem.

The real problem is technology overload. I've had to learn so much cyberspeak, I can't remember to make mental notes: like, 4th floor, top of ramp.

The lead culprit is the time-saving computer. But also cell phones, printers, scanners, telephone answering systems, answering system menus, remote TV controllers, beepers, laptops and languages for all the above.

I've half-mastered Xyrite, Wordperfect, Harris, Word, Windows, DOS, Lotus . . . (Not French. Not Italian. No romance. Just logic and order and rationality.)

I'm asked to consider RAM, URLs, HDTV, DVD.

I'm thinking: SOS! Mayday! We're going under here!

I can't remember where my car is parked because I'm trying to remember what number to punch into the telephone keypad when the voice says "Password?"

I can't remember where my car is parked because I'm fretting about being "locked out" of my new suburban office phone messaging system. This has happened because I didn't have the password and after three false starts, the machine electronically manacled the phone.

For my protection, you understand.

I had to call the company help line. (What's that number?) I left a message. Days go by. A red blinker blinks informing me that someone is trying to get me: Have I won the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes? Am I eligible for a week at Hilton Head?

When I do finally get into the phone system, I can finally call the automobile repair shop. A disembodied speaker wants to know if I have a touch-tone phone. Is she kidding?

As bemused as I may be, I am preoccupied: We have a new computer system with Internet access that allows me to use my personal Internet account. But it -- the gatekeeper -- wants my "screen name." I could produce my Internet address. But screen name? I'm only sure about where my car is parked.

When I send an order on the Web for tulip bulbs, the program knocks off the last four numbers of my credit card. A return message ensues: Could I please call and speak the other four numbers into the machine. The order is in limbo until I do as requested. I make several calls before reaching a very accommodating person who takes the numbers and completes the order.

How much time have I saved so far?

Many questions, little patience. Do I want my e-mail message system to signal new messages every minute or every four minutes? Do I want a flashing logo? Do I want the artifacts of earlier messages left on the screen? Do I want a bell to sound periodically reminding me to look at messages?

What is cyberspeak for "no"?

I've learned this much: It's always my fault. One of the 11-year-old twins loses part of a printing project. Did I zap it inadvertently? I am the most likely culprit. I lose face. But here there is a dividend: They can teach me something and love doing it, so we are bonding anew over the software. We could have bonded over the Colts or the Os or the Ryder Cup, but a bond is a bond.

Occasionally, of course, I must report to the newspaper building in Baltimore. The 11-year-olds can't be with me to be sure I have remembered to bring the card with the lock-opening magnetic strip that lets me into the building from the newspaper's parking garage (the one where my car gets lost.)

Marooned without the card one day, I have an epiphany.

I learn a message of technology: You need your own techno-widget, a product that can be sold to millions at a reasonable price.

Here's my concept:

A parking garage sonar that can find and lead me to my car. It would automatically record where I parked. I couldn't be made responsible for remembering to punch in the location.

The carfinder would flash the cars' location on some sort of screen. It could be worn on the belt right next to your beeper -- or, perhaps, it could be integrated into the beeper.

Yes, there is something circular in this process: I'd have to remember to wear the beeper.

Or park in Columbia.

C. Fraser Smith is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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