Saturday, April 09, 2005

Colin McEnroe: Poddy Training

(courtesy of Mason)

Poddy Training
by Colin McEnroe, "To Wit" Column
Hartford Courant

Am I the only person in America who is frightened of the PODS commercial?

PODS stands for Personal On Demand Storage. The company was founded in Pinellas County, Fla., home of the Terri Schiavo saga. Make of that what you will.

PODS are sterile-looking room-size boxes, white with a red logo. The idea is that the pod is delivered to you, filled with your stuff and then lifted back onto a truck with a specially designed hydraulic system that supposedly minimizes jostling.

Then the company takes the pod wherever you are going. If you aren't going anywhere, the company takes the pod to a podhouse. The last thing you see in the commercial is a fancy forklift slowly hoisting a pod on top of a stack of other pods, which is next to a stack of other pods. And so on.

And you (or I) think: There's somebody in there. They took him and put him in a Ziploc full of amniotic fluid and packed all his stuff in there with him and hooked an iPod on his ears to play lulling music. That's where people go. They say they're taking new jobs somewhere else, but they're in PODS now.


Although horrifying, the pod is tempting. Life is so stressful. It's cozy and compact in there. Why not pod down for the long night of the 21st century? Pod is God. Pod is God. Pod is...

No! I won't do it.

PODS was started in 1998. There are at least 22,000 pods in use right now.

People like them.

People like iPods even more. Apple recently reported that it has sold 10 million of the digital audio players in all.

That's a lot of pod people.

The term "pod people" comes from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," a 1956 movie about vegetables from outer space who come to Earth in pods and then replace each and every human being with an emotionless duplicate, which always seems like a perfect description of what's going on in America no matter how many times they remake it and no matter when it is released. The fourth version is coming out in 2006.

"Pod people" used to be kind of a pejorative term, implying soulless conformity. Now, I'm not even sure "soulless conformity" is a pejorative term, but a pod person is somebody who quickly embraces the newest technology.

But iPods and PODS, to whatever extent they wall us off, make us more portable, detach us from the bosom of humankind, are part of a larger, more subtle trend.

I can't prove this, but I bet you don't know as many street addresses as you used to. That is to say, 10 years ago you could probably rattle off more street addresses of friends and associates than you can now. You might know the street where your friend lives, but not the number. You've stopped writing letters. You just e-mail. The street addresses, if you have them at all, are in your Blackberry or similar device. Nobody uses a phone book anymore. When you look up a number in the phone book your eye also reviews the address. Even the old dog-eared address book you recently chucked out allowed you to review addresses. You'd accidentally review Bill Heald's address while you were looking up Bob Heller's.

I mentioned this (in an e-mail) to my fellow writer and friend Rand Cooper, whose address I do not know. Several people had asked me for it, and I realized they did not know how to look it up in the phone book. I know Rand's e-mail address, and I think I have his phone number on speed-dial. He is code more than he is bricks and mortar.

Rand e-mailed me back: "Vaguely relatedly, I have also noticed an increasing number of people seemingly content to live their entire lives without a land-line telephone. They just use cell phones. I find this obscurely disturbing. Maybe it is as if somehow the very notion of a house-as-home is being deconstructed. You take your phone with you, you take your address with you. You are your own house, your own home."

In other words, all we are is pods in the wind.

Cui bono?, as Cicero used to say. To whose advantage?

Call me paranoid, but I think there are lots of people quite happy to have us podularized. Big Business, in particular, is happy to have lots of people with transferable skills and tastes, neatly packed into formatted cubes and shipped from work site to work site.

Here in Connecticut, Betty Sternberg, the commissioner of education, recently shocked a few people when, in the course of lauding Gov. M. Jodi Rell's plan to get laptops into the schools, she came out against books ... as a genre!

"Most students still pore over poorly written, boring textbooks with only cursory coverage of a topic; few are provided daily access to the technology that could give them the depth and breadth of their subjects," she wrote in The Courant.

Think of that. She's the commissioner of education. And she's against books. She says books are crap! The Internet is where you find depth! Laptops. We need stinkin' laptops. Why?

"To be productive members of our workforce, high school students must incorporate technology into their lives," Sternberg writes. I have noted, in recent years, how comfortable education bureaucrats have become in naming, as the one true purpose of American schooling, taking one's place in the Great Economic Hive.

Thomas Jefferson said in 1810 that the purpose of general education was "to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom." He would have agreed with Sternberg about laptops, if they helped us identify "worth and genius," as he said, from "every condition of life." But he liked us a little unruly.

"If our infant country is to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance, and no reasoning can take place in a pod," he said in a letter to John Tyler.

OK, I made that up. It's the kind of thing you can do, when you're free, when you're thinking outside the pod.

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