You could say they have an affliction. You’ve probably bumped into them on the street. That is, they bump into you, because they often walk with their eyes fixated on their task, oblivious to any obstacles in their path. You’ve definitely overheard them chatting on trains, in coffee shops, perhaps even in neighboring toilet stalls. Call them what you like: Cell-heads, the Mobile Mob, the Keitai-zoku. They’re everywhere. They’re hooked to the cellular Net. You might be one of them

Cyberia logo

A good friend of mine — let’s call him Bart — grumbles at the rudeness of cell-phone users, even though some of them happen to be his friends, and even though they sometimes use their handy communicators to troubleshoot problems. Bart still grumbles at this new-fangled form of interruption, this “competition” for his attention. Likewise, despite his friends’ urgings, he refuses to buy one because he doesn’t deem the intrusion to be worth the so-called convenience.

Bart draws certain lines when it comes to technology, but he is no Luddite. He embraced the Internet as soon as he heard about it (way back in ’93, was it?), and was the first on his block to purchase a PDA. Bart religiously checks his e-mail at least twice a day. And he faithfully responds to that e-mail because he’s worked it into his daily schedule.

Recently Bart’s been checking his mail more often. Rumors of his love life aside, the availability of free Web-based e-mail has fueled this rise in frequency. Bart can now log into his Web-mail account and check his external mail (through the POP address) from any computer. He no longer needs to wait until he returns home. And he’s not alone. Thanks to the likes of Hotmail and Yahoo! Mail, compulsive e-mail checkers are sprouting like wild enoki.

Bart’s dependency is fairly mild compared to road warriors I know who’ve wired their answering machines, their fax machines and their voicemail to their pagers, their laptops and now their Palm Pilots. They’re not necessarily data hounds or lonely hearts; they simply want to be in constant touch with their clients and/or headquarters. Lost lag time is lost money, or so they say.

They’d love M@ilPush, a Web-based service which ingeniously notifies users of the arrival of e-mail via fax, phone, pager or modem. Yes, modem. Don’t ask how it works (the company is rightfully cagey about the details), but a notification message can be relayed to your computer even if it’s not online. It’s all rather frightening.

Perhaps one of the more bizarre innovations of this perpetual interconnectivity is the appearance of www.pursuitwatch.com. Don’t want to miss the next O.J. high-tailing it in his Bronco? Subscribe to this Web-based service, which provides crime-watchers with instant updates (via pager) of in-progress car chases and the like.

I guess that’s where I’d draw the line, but who am I to judge? I’ve got a few tele-afflictions myself. My latest would be instant messaging. I had flirted with this in the past, more for the novelty than a pragmatic need. My first introduction came with AOL’s Buddy Lists. If a friend or family member was online at the same time I was, I could send them a quick message and usually we’d have an impromptu chat. We’d connected, without having to produce an excuse to e-mail one another.

For a brief time, I enjoyed it, but one thing bugged me: Was I intruding? Likewise, when I was working online I didn’t want to be disturbed.

Recently I’ve had to re-evaluate messaging/chatting systems. Like the Cell-heads, they’re hard to ignore. In fact AOL’s Instant Messaging system is now built into the Netscape browser. They’re easy to use: No need to know any UNIX commands, to be logged on the IRC, or to rendezvous in a chat room.

Eroding our degrees of online separation, messaging software produces anchors, loyalties, communities. The real leader in this field would appear to be ICQ (I Seek You). Started by Mirabilis, a small Israeli company, ICQ has been a hit with chatters, the kind of folks who want to exchange info in real time and in exclusive groups.

The grass-roots image of ICQ was modified a bit last year when AOL purchased Mirabilis for $300 million. The ICQ community now stands tall with over 28 million users. With massive communities, ever-increasing content and new features (send files! play games! search the Web!), ICQ is mushrooming into a browserless portal. No doubt ICQ’s message window will become valuable ad real estate.

But there’s another reason for ICQ’s popularity. It’s great for people who merely want to connect with friends or family on a one-to-one basis, or maybe have a conference chat. The ICQ software gives you the option of displaying your availability status, such as “I’m away,” “Don’t disturb” or “Available.” What’s more, M@ilpush, which also happens to be based in Israel, can notify you of any chat requests even when you’re offline, making you very available.

Of course, the catch with ICQ is those with whom you want to connect have to be registered on the system and have the same software. (Mac users, yours just came out of beta.) Maybe this barrier will eventually dissolve. Or maybe, AOL will turn it into the telecommunication tool you can’t resist.

Techo-cynics will obviously see this octopus of interconnectivity as a technological encroachment, long digital fingers working their way into our analog lives. And Web entrepreneurs definitely are exploiting our dependencies. But before you unplug completely, look at the technology’s full capabilities. Incoming calls on cell phones annoy you? Use the built-in caller ID to screen them. To complain about spam is to ignore the power of e-mail filters. Likewise, messaging software has bozo filters that can block unwanted chatters. M@ilPush can be tweaked so that it notifies you only when certain e-mail arrives.

Yes, Bart, you’ve got mail. Have I got your attention? Welcome to the afflicted.