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Jewish World Review Aug. 25, 1999 /13 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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How life has been
changed by the
woodpecker effect --
THE WOODPECKER EFFECT -- which has already, without widespread public comment, taken over much of American life -- is about to get even more ubiquitous.

The Woodpecker Effect is something you see every day. People sit at their desks, or stand in front of pay telephones, or squint at their miniaturized cellular phones, and peck away. Woodpeckers peck with their beaks; humans peck with their fingers. If someone had commanded men and women to do this, they would have resisted; if the government had ordered it, there would be revolution in the streets.

But it has happened voluntarily. Person-to-person contact -- for centuries the glue of human interaction -- is being replaced by the Woodpecker Effect. Not only do people not protest against this -- they peck ever faster, as if addicted.

They tap in their personal code numbers; they tap in their electronic mailbox numbers. They tap in whether they want to inquire about their account balance (tap key No. 1), find out when they made their last payment (tap key 2), or shift money from one account to another (tap 3). They tap in their orders for merchandise; they tap in their choice of the city to which they'd like to make reservations. They tap in the last four digits of their Social Security numbers "for security reasons" or -- a favorite -- "for your protection." They tap in their phone numbers so a machine may call them back when the machine is not otherwise occupied.

There are reasons for this, ranging from lowering costs for companies by letting microchips do the jobs of human beings, to automating responses to questions businesses are asked by their customers thousands of times a day. Some reasons are valid, many others are just a way for companies to avoid paying living people. But in the long run, the greatest societal impact of this may be the Woodpecker Effect. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap . . . this is what we have allowed our lives to evolve into.

You see people standing at pay phones now, using the phones for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, and not a word is ever spoken. Tap, tap, tap. Checking messages, forwarding messages, providing sales data to some machine on the other end . . . the people get up in the morning, get dressed, go out into the world. . . .

. . . And tap. This is what they have studied hard in college for, this is what they have been bright-eyed and ambitious and diligent in their work for: to be woodpeckers.

Forget "save the whales" and "save the rain forests"; the coming conservation drive is to save the newest endangered species: numbers.

Seriously. A consumer group has asked the Federal Communications Commission to institute new policies on how phone numbers are doled out, in an effort to hold off the day when there are no more area codes available in the U.S. There are still wide open spaces in America, still huge spans of virgin forest, still miles of lakes and pastures where few people ever venture. Land, we've got plenty of. It's the numbers that are running out. The old woodpeckers haven't done away with all the trees -- but the new woodpeckers, the ones in business suits, are eating up all the numbers.

And it's going to get worse. General Motors this month said it is about to test-market Internet access inside of cars. These "Web cars" are expected to be offered nationally by the end of next year; the idea, according to a GM spokesman, is to allow people to link up to the Internet while they are driving.

So as the human woodpeckers with their car phones tap in their access numbers, retrieve their messages, then tap the codes that will transfer them to the next set of numerical options, they apparently will be able to simultaneously activate the digit-driven world of the worldwide computer network. They'll be nodding and tapping, tapping and nodding, speeding down the highway, connected to the entire universe beyond.

As to whatever happened to "keep your eyes on the road," that is yet to be seen. A General Motors executive said: "We want to change GM from being an automotive company that moves on an automotive time frame, to an automotive company that moves on an Internet time frame."

Oh. Well, at least the in-car computers are going to be voice-activated. That in itself may be enough to make them a success. They may provide one of the few times all day for the new woodpeckers to actually get the opportunity to speak.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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