When we realize we're connected just because we can be, it's time to do some backpedaling
I'm pedaling this lifecycle like a fool, trying desperately to keep my feet moving while poking my right index finger at the monitor in front of me, writing notes with my left hand in the reporter's notebook nestled in my lap and engaging in idle chatter with the more fashionably dressed workout mavens in this oh-so-trendy Manhattan gym. A slight tilt too far to the left and I'm off the bike completely. A tad too much chatter and a message flashes on the screen telling me to "please resume exercising" if I want to maintain my Web access. So I pump away and poke out words faster than you can blend a smoothie. What in God's name am I doing here?
"Here" is atop a Netpulse Station at the Lafayette Street location of Crunch, a chain of nine fitness centers headed by Doug Levine that offer everything from an aerobics class taught by a cross-dressing dancer to an authentic firefighter workout led by a New York City fireman. This Netpulse Station--designed by San Francisco-based Netpulse Communications, which is headed by Intuit cofounder Tom Proulx--comprises a stationary bicycle outfitted with a small TV, a CD player, and a computer that enables the user to log on to the Web while working out. Amazing, I thought, when I first heard about the setup. Two dynamos had come together to keep me more connected than I'd ever been before--plus buff to boot.
Apparently, I'm not alone in my desire to stay connected. According to research from Ziff-Davis released in December, between January and August of last year, the number of PCs that are connected to the Internet in the United States increased by 35%, from 45 million to more than 60 million. By Ziff-Davis's calculations, that means 53% of all PCs are connected to the Internet. The growth in the number of PCs in the workplace that have Internet hookups has been staggering--an increase of 52% over the same time period, from 16 million to more than 24 million. What's more, 35% of all PCs in the workplace, and 60.4% in the home, are connected to the Internet six hours or more per week. We are one connected nation.
And I count myself, particularly at this moment, as one of its more connected citizens. As I puff and pedal, a prompt comes up on the screen asking me to choose a logon name and a password. Once I comply, I'm informed that my workouts--the time cycled, the distance covered--will be recorded in a central computer that I can access from any Netpulse machine anywhere in the world. I also learn that I can earn frequent-flier miles based on the number of minutes I work out, and that I can enter an eight-week fitness competition designed for Crunch Netpulse users across the country.
But I'm the Road Warrior. I'm not here to compete. I'm here to work while I unwind, to type while I tone up. Leaning back in the Life-cycle's bucket seat, I stab at the touch screen--it's planted where a normal Lifecycle's control panel is--and retrieve the messages sent to my Web-based E-mail address. To respond to the first one I poke at the Reply command on the screen. An on-screen keyboard appears, complete with an "@" sign and a "www" key for typing out URLs but minus apostrophes, quote marks, and other minutiae of punctuation that keep us from looking quasiliterate. I begin to peck out my message but stop in midsentence since there's space in the message box only for a dozen or so words at a time. I hit Enter to store what I've written and prepare to finish my thought. But I'm so distracted by my racing feet (if I slow down, the dreaded "please resume exercising" warning will take over the screen and wipe out everything I've written so far) that I can't remember what I wrote in my first go-round.
I decide it's time to take an E-mail break and hit the "www" key to start a cruise around the Web. The touch screen is remarkably responsive, and I easily swing from www.msnbc.com, where I check out the stock-market averages, to www.inc.com, where I cruise through Inc. Online's bulletin boards for new postings. But after about 30 minutes my connectedness Jones kicks in, and I surf back to my E-mail to resume my abbreviated conversations with far-flung colleagues and friends.
It is during my fourth episode of the "please resume exercising" experience that the revelation hits: This is nuts. I go to the gym when I'm on the road to reduce stress. Yet here I am turning one of my sole outlets for relaxation into another chance to work. Sure, if I were a regular member of the gym and wanted to compete for valuable prizes or earn frequent-flier miles, the endeavor might be worth it. But that hadn't been my intent. I'd merely thought that staying connected through the Internet while exercising would enhance both my quality of life and my quality of work. What was I? Nuts?
I'd crossed the line. And then everything started to fall into place. All my repeated efforts to log on to E-mail at airports, from pay phones, from kiosks, at cybercafÉs, I realized, were attempts to stay connected because, well, I could. So travel became more stressful than before, and life on the road became more complicated, not less. Technology hadn't streamlined my life (or, Crunch showed me, even my body); it had weighed it down.
It was with that thought in mind that I decided to consult the severest critic of these columns to see how he handled connectedness while on the road. This CEO of a company that makes bed comforters, dust ruffles, and shams asked that I not use his name. In his numerous missives he refers to me alternately as "road whiner" or "road buffoon." He claims that he doesn't subscribe to the magazine, yet he reads each issue and each of my columns more closely and with more calumny that just about anyone out there. He E-mails me regularly to tell me how little he thinks of me and my silly little ideas and sorry little experiences. I consider him a fan. Let's call him Sham-man. Hell, for the purposes of this exercise, let's call him my Shaman.
I E-mail Shaman to ask him how he stays connected to the office while he's on the road. He responds: "I travel extensively domestically and overseas; I've been to most countries in Europe and to much of the Pacific Rim. I've experienced luxurious and primitive accommodations, road infrastructure, and technology. As to my experience in the PC world, I am almost illiterate." He goes on to say that as an AOL user, he can stay connected without having to lug around a laptop because he can log on to the Net from any computer that has AOL software on it. He says that he has no trouble finding AOL-loaded computers but limits the number of times he checks his E-mail while he's on the road. His prime method of staying in touch with family and business associates, he continues, is by cell phone. "All those I deem important enough to reach me are given that number and told to always use it regardless of where I am. When any member of the two aforementioned groups needs to reach me, I want them to be able to do so immediately."
Like most shamans, he offers a message that brings clarity: Rid yourself of what you don't need, and those who need you will find you.
I take it to heart. As I climb off the Netpulse Station, I note that I feel lighter, not because of any pounds shed but because in my mind I've already turned in my several pounds of laptop for barely an ounce of cell phone. Besides, I figure, with a cell phone I can always call a local gym to see if it'll take me for the day.
Jeffrey L. Seglin is determined to read his E-mail less frequently than before.
If you want to work out while you're on the road, there's a site on-line that can help you find a gym, by city or zip code, in the area you plan to visit. It's at www.fitnesszone.com/gyms. You'll still have to call the gym to see if it will allow you to visit for the day. But for about $20, most gyms will let you in.