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They call netcams progress?

As this country continues to shift its business and social activities into cyberspace, I want to offer a belated salute to a small, unsung firm that has quietly produced one of the great household accessories of the 20th century.

Butts Manufacturing Company of Garden Grove, Calif., makes a retractable clothesline. Mounted on a wall or post, five durable cords will extend to a length of 34 feet. I owned one about 15 years ago, and always enjoyed the fresh, clean smell of garments that are dried outdoors.

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When we moved, the clothesline got left behind, and later I succumbed to appliance envy and bought an electric dryer.

But many people still opt for line-drying. One of them is my neighbor Marybeth, who recently wore out her retractable clothesline after 20 years of steady use, and had a hard time replacing it. Local merchants didn't stock the item, but she eventually found one at a small-town hardware store.

So here is a product that is simple to use, energy efficient, performs a necessary function, and seems headed down an irreversible path to commercial extinction. Meanwhile, modern inventions of questionable importance to our lives are readily available and exploding in popularity.

The latest example of this trend is called netcam. It's a tiny video device that plugs into a computer and lets the user send out visual images.

Months ago, The Wall Street Journal reported that netcams were selling at the rate of 1,000 per day worldwide, with many being used for questionable online activities. I'm glad Jules Verne and H.G. Wells aren't around to log on.

Futurists used to imagine that freeing citizens from the drudgery of daily chores would open great opportunities for intellectual enrichment. But as leisure time expands, more people seem happy to pursue pointless, bizarre behavior under the guise of individual creativity or freedom of expression.

It reminds me of a Three Stooges episode in which the boys are trying to get rich by marketing a pen that writes under whipped cream. The concept sounds impressive, but eventually Larry asks, "Why would anybody want a pen that writes under whipped cream?" Moe, taken aback, finally replies, "Well, maybe sometime you'd be out in the desert, and there wouldn't be any water to write under!"

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I have similar doubts about netcams and other computer toys. Do the software companies and their advertising cohorts realize that some people out here in average America will never feel excited about plugging in, getting networked, or going global? Our lifestyles are doing fine without the upgrades.

I hope society is inclusive toward those of us at the lower end of the technology curve when e-culture dominates the media, economy, and social fabric of America. But I have a feeling we may get hung out to dry.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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