Cell phones and the cleaning lady

I was going to write (again) about the extent to which we IT types have become entrapped personally by the very technology that we advocate professionally, when I got smacked on the back of my head by own hypocrisy.

Here I am on vacation – a vacation wherein I would normally try (underline try, not necessarily succeed) to stay away from voice mail, try to ignore e-mail if at all possible, and claim that I was making some progress in reclaiming personal time away from work while warming up and drying out on a lawn chair planted less than 100 yards from the rising tide at Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

And what I really wanted was to tell someone that both the girls are surfing without any help at all from their old man. So what do I do? You guessed it – pick up the cell phone and make a couple of calls. The fact that I can get a crystal clear connection from the wilds of Pacific Rim National Park is impressive. That fact that I am is a little bit pathetic, especially since it brings to mind the question that the homeless Cleaning Lady asked me just last week.

The Cleaning Lady. I never did get her real name, but that’s how she referred to herself. She was standing by the side of the road just outside the town of Canal Flats with her thumb in the air, and with what turned out to be all her worldly possessions stuffed in three bags piled around her ankles.

Can’t say that I’ve ever picked up a hitchhiker before, but she looked harmless enough, so I pulled over.

She was the colour of old leaves, and smelled about the same way, with a face that clearly spent most of its time outside. She had bright-blue eyes, the effect of which, when she looked at me (not very often), was amplified by the colour of her face.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said. “If you’re going through Golden, that’ll do”.

I’ve never spent much time in the company of anyone homeless, and certainly not a couple of hours one-on-one in the cab of my Jeep.

The Cleaning Lady is of indeterminate age, I’m guessing somewhere between 55 and 70 years old. She makes her living picking up odd jobs cleaning houses, splitting firewood or whatever else puts a few dollars in her hand. No fixed address, no charge cards, no technology trappings at all; a hand-to-mouth, cash-only existence in the 21 st century. “Anything I make I drink, smoke or eat,” she said.

When she got in my truck, the first thing out of her mouth was a request for me to turn off my cell phone “Those things put out a whine that I can hear,” she said, “and the whining gives me a headache.”

Since she volunteered that “people who ask me stupid questions bother me the most,” we rode in silence for the next 10 kilometers. But she did offer a further opinion on cell phones: “I used to have one of those things, but I gave it away…it only worked near the big cities (which she clearly did not like), it scared me when it rang, and when it did ring, it was usually a wrong number. And then I had to set up a mailbox just to get my bill, and make sure I was back every month to pay it…Besides, why would I want to pay to have someone call me up and interrupt my peace and quiet?”

I jumped in: “But it sure would be helpful to have one if you were hurt somewhere and needed help in a hurry, wouldn’t it?”

She looked at me disdainfully: “Who would I ever call? Besides, there are public phones most everywhere if I really need ’em.”

And then she asked me the question that made me think: “Aren’t there enough public phones out there for you? What’s so urgent that you’ve got to carry a phone around with you?”

I bought her a coffee and dropped her off in Golden, not thinking it worth my while to debate the differences between necessity and convenience.

But that is, in the end, the question about all our personal technology, isn’t it? Does the convenience of being in touch outweigh the annoyance? For me, the answer is yes, and for better or worse, my cell phone is usually close at hand.

For the Cleaning Lady and for a few other people like her, the answer is clearly no.

And when we look at the application of any technology, it’s a question that we need to ask – a homeless Cleaning Lady and a day on the beach reminded me that the answer to the question isn’t always the same.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail.com