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Wired, but everyone on hold

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It's an axiom of our times that the more technology lets people reach out to the world, the less they want to be reached.

They surf websites without registering. They set up filters to defend their e-mail accounts from spam. Some 64 million households have signed up for the "do not call" registry to keep their home phones from jingling incessantly.

But there's a second axiom of the age: People want to be available, sometimes 'round-the-clock, for certain family members, friends, or even business offers. As companies exploit that desire, individuals will find it hard to keep a low electronic profile, experts say.

The latest proposed intruders:

• The Food and Drug Administration last week approved the use of a tiny chip, about the size of a grain of rice, that could be implanted under the skin to transmit data such as a person's medical history, location, or identity.

• A group of six cellphone companies plans to offer a nationwide directory service for wireless phones sometime next year.

"It's a classic example of a two-edged sword," says Paul Levinson, chairman of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. "We want to be found by people we want to be in touch with. [And] if Steven Spielberg wants to make a movie of my science fiction novel," says Professor Levinson, who moonlights as a sci-fi author, then "I want to be found 24/7 any place in the world."

Some people we want to hear from only at work; others, only at home.

Mobile phones have muddied these distinctions, adds Levinson, author of "Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Mobile Medium and How It Transformed Everything!" Once mobile-phone numbers are published in a directory, "the switch has been turned on, so to speak, and there's no way not to be reachable."

Directory assistance calls for wireless phone numbers could bring mobile-phone companies and directory assistance providers $2 billion in additional annual revenue by 2008 through directory fees and more fixed and cellphone minutes used, says Kathleen Pierz, a wireless industry analyst. According to a poll her firm conducted, 53 percent the nation's more than 160 million wireless users might eventually sign up for a directory if customers were convinced it contained sufficient privacy safeguards.


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