Technology: Does it pay?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They put a computer in Stephen Dixon's office at Johns Hopkins even though he didn't ask for it and didn't want it. He has never used it. It was turned on for two years, and he didn't even know it.

When contact with a computer can't be avoided, the acclaimed novelist and professor has a colleague go online for him. He has written all 23 of his published books on manual typewriters. His wife handles the e-mail that arrives at their home.

"I didn't want e-mail: I didn't want students to contact me through it. I wanted them to call me," Dixon said. "Besides, I don't know how to use it."

Stephen H. Craft, on the other hand, once fell asleep with his Palm Pilot next to his pillow.

A marketing professor at Towson University, Craft has all e-mail forwarded from his work computer to his Palm Pilot. He checks it in line at the grocery store, at a red light or waiting at a restaurant. If a student has a question at 2 a.m., a phone call won't get returned until daybreak but an e-mail will likely secure a response within an hour.

"I live on e-mail, almost 24 hours a day," said Craft, who is 37.

These two seemingly happy and successful academics sit like bookends at either end of a question that lurks at the heart of modern life: Are the benefits of technology worth the price we pay?

For most Americans the answer would seem unequivocal. Who would give up the convenience, utility and even joy that comes with use of their cell phone, Palm Pilot, ATM, laptop, X-Box or DVD player?

Embracing new technology appears to be almost a defining feature of a successful life. Those who don't are frequently dismissed as dinosaurs.

Experts expect that, in the next 10 to 15 years, the Internet will have the same market penetration that the telephone does. Already, more than 140 million Americans use cell phones, and computers are in more than 60 percent of homes.

People seem increasingly eager to adopt some changes. DVD players caught on twice as fast as VCRs did when they were first introduced, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

But behind technology's shiny facade, shortcomings clearly lurk.

If computers really eliminate paperwork, why is the office recycling bin always overflowing? Why is it so difficult to find important messages in a sea of Internet junk mail? Why does the cell phone signal fade at a crucial juncture in the conversation? And why do we so frequently find ourselves hostage to computer software that breaks down in ways that the "tech support" guy can't explain.

From convenience stores to steel mills, high technology has crept into nearly every workplace. Some employees have been displaced by it. Others are intimidated. The most fearless are embracing it.

Craft, the Towson professor, believes e-mail and other technologies have made his life and his work more efficient.

During the school year, e-mail is his primary form of communication with students. He gets up to 50 messages a day.

While he admits some questions must be answered in person, Craft said shooting e-mail messages back and forth is far better. It gives him time to ponder students' questions and reply at his convenience. Plus, he can get mundane tasks out of the way, leaving more time for counseling his students or playing ball with his kids.

"I know I am a dramatically more engaged parent because of the efficiencies of technology," Craft said from his office at school, where a bright yellow Towson University screensaver bounces around the computer screen.

Technology has, on occasion, failed him. He has purchased and returned at least three hand-held computers. He has loaded two different speech recognition programs on his computer and was disappointed with both. During meetings, he still uses a pen and paper because he has yet to find a technology that is better for note taking.

For Craft, the advantages of technology outweigh the disadvantages. He is co-authoring a journal article with a professor in California, for instance, and their project would be severely hindered without e-mail and documents available on the Internet.

There are also advantages for his students. One, Jon Payne, said he felt comfortable launching barrages of e-mail at his professor.

"If I send him three or four e-mails a day ... I don't feel like I'm being as invasive as three or four phone calls a day," Payne said.

Experts say Craft's choices are not necessarily better, but they open him up to a world of opportunities being missed by his low-tech associates.

"If you're not using technology at home and you're not using it in the workplace, you're not able to take advantage of a significant aspect of society that other people interact with on a daily basis and its second nature to them," said Susan K. Lippert, a professor at Drexel University who studies the use and management of technology.

Craft presents all of his lectures using PowerPoint software. Notes and handouts from his courses are posted on the university's intranet site. Sometimes, his e-business classes meet in a computer lab where each student sits in front of a terminal.

He pays all his bills online. He buys about 40 percent of his clothes online. He loads digital pictures of his daughters onto a commercial Internet site that mails prints to his family.

For Dixon, at Hopkins, technology is an unnecessary distraction, not an aid.

He doesn't have a cell phone. When he goes to Maine for six weeks each summer, he doesn't check his messages. If students need to reach him during the school year, they visit his office or call him.

"You get a lot more done on the phone," said Dixon, who is 67.

Dixon, who teaches a fiction writing seminar at Hopkins, at one time replied to home e-mail messages by having his wife call them up and then typing his phone number and the words: "I don't e-mail. Call." But that wore him down about a year ago, so he abandoned sending e-mail entirely.

People like Dixon, who can still receive e-mail via his wife, are not fully removed from technology, said Edward Tenner, an expert on technological innovation for the National Museum of American History in Washington and author of two noted books chronicling the hazards that almost always accompany new technology.

From the telephone to the computer, each emerging technology has made fresh demands on society, Tenner noted. Electricity eliminated the need for making oil lamps and candles, allowing someone to simply flip a switch for light. But it also created the possibility of electrical fires and the need for electricians.

Loie Fuller, one of the most celebrated dancers of the late 1800s who used electricity in her routine, traveled with 20 electricians, Tenner said.

In the 1950s, Volkswagen Beetles were so simple to repair that the owners themselves often fixed them if something went wrong. Today, Beetles may be more environmentally sound and have more modern-day features, but they are far more complex.

"When something does go wrong, it can take a lot of skill to repair it," Tenner said.

Dixon noted that the Hermes typewriter he uses to write - tapping out the work with three or four fingers - never crashes.

All the writers he knows who use a computer have lost work. "Every one of them has lost something," he said.

Dixon's storage system sits to the left of his cream-colored machine - a red folder of clean paper and a manila folder of used sheets that he recycles. To the right sit white type correction papers about the size of a credit card.

"I'm not a Luddite," Dixon said. "I take advantage of technology by using the phone, the stove, the toaster."

Dixon pays a price for his low-tech preferences. A publisher once charged him $2,000 to copy his typewritten manuscript onto a computer disk.

Typewriter ribbons are tough to come by in the Information Age. The two local stationery stores that sold ribbons to fit his machine have closed. Now, he can only find ribbons through a friend in Iowa.

Still, the two-time finalist for the National Book Award believes his low-tech methods make him a better writer. When he has to move paragraphs around, he does it in his mind rather than with the cut-and- paste buttons of a computer, though he sometimes has to retype a page as many as 35 times before he gets it just right.

Dixon believes computers give the delusion that the work is better than it actually is because it looks so neat and clean on the screen. "It gives you a false sense of perfection," he said.

As new technologies have developed, there have always been holdouts like Dixon.

Luddite, a name sometimes used to describe modern opponents of technological change, dates back to a group of English workers who burned factories and attacked businesses in the early 1800s because they felt new technology was endangering their work.

Modern dictionaries have added fresh words like technophobia to help describe fear of technology. There is a whole genre of books about the phenomenon. A phobia clinic in New York even offers to help rid people of their technology fears for $985.

"For some, it's a lifestyle choice. They're proud that they're not online. They think it's a lot of commotion about nothing," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit Washington research center that studies the social impact of the Internet.

Dixon is not opposed to technology for others. A cell phone, he said, makes his daughter safer in her car. But he prefers to go on doing things the same way he has for a half-century.

He writes critiques of his students' work on the typewriter. He has inspired a few of them to use the typewriter as a secondary writing tool, though he admits most think he's an anachronism. He even concedes his students might be better off if their professor were somewhat technologically inclined.

"The truth is, I should probably use e-mail at work to contact the students who I do advise," Dixon admitted.

He believes his students have become terrible spellers because they rely too heavily on the spell check feature of their computers. But he has noticed over the years that his students are becoming better writers. That may be because Hopkins is enrolling stronger writers, or perhaps, he said, it is thanks to the computer.

For his own work, Dixon doesn't have to worry about all the perils of using a computer. With his typewriter, he notes, carpal tunnel syndrome is not a hazard and work can continue even during a nighttime power outage. (Assuming there are candles around to provide light.)

When a workroom gets noisy, Dixon simply picks up his typewriter and moves to a place where he can continue in solitude - just him and his machine.

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