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Electronic gizmos and OnStar are just new leashes.

A New Leash on Life?


"Each and every day, my husband, my children and I give thanks to OnStar."

That, apparently, is a real line from a real letter sent by a real person to OnStar, the in-car system that uses a combination of Global Positioning System, cell-phone technology and general creepiness to pinpoint your exact location at all times if you own a Cadillac, Saab, Oldsmobile, Chevy Suburban or one of the many cars now equipped with OnStar.

By using the coolest straight man ever to wear a cape — Batman — as its pitchman, OnStar is trying to make you forget that you don't actually want people knowing your exact location at all times. OnStar helps the Caped Crusader when he locks himself out of the Batmobile and even lends a hand in calling for backup to nab the Joker. Gosh.

It's hard to argue — though I will — with the benefits of something that can get you unlost, help you find a hotel or a hospital or zoo, and maybe even save your life. At the push of a button, you can call for emergency help from your car. Within seconds, a disembodied voice will be there to help you.

Even if you are locked out, you can call OnStar and the system will unlock your car for you. Even if you are knocked out, your car will automatically send an emergency signal to OnStar if your airbag deploys.

OnStar can help if you are lost, if your car breaks down, if you need a suggestion for a nice out-of-the-way bistro or if a crazed serial killer has climbed into your back seat.

Omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient.

If your car is your universe, then truly OnStar is your god.

What's not to love?

Maybe the better question is: What do we give up for this ultimate convenience? I'll tell you what. The bliss of the disconnect.

That singularly sweet sensation one feels floating on her back in the Caribbean or standing at the top of a mountain or going for a Sunday drive.

For Americans, in particular, nothing has symbolized freedom more than the automobile. It was our last refuge. Now, through cell phones, e-mail, pagers, Palm Pilots, the Internet and systems such as OnStar, we human beings — have become completely and regrettably reachable.

In some tiny ways, pop culture has tried to mock and even buck the trend. There's one precious little commercial in which the handsome wine-sipping crowd pitch their cell phones off the dock and into the lake with reckless abandon and laughing as if to say, "Oh, we'll just buy new ones when we get back to the city!" A beer commercial shows someone using a cell phone under the leg of a table on the beach. (If he's so carefree, what's he doing with the phone at the beach in the first place?)

Ah, yes, we have some vague recollection of what it means to be left alone.

But some people — and by "some people" I mean those who have some electronic gizmo strapped to them at all times — have no idea how glorious it can feel to be severed from human contact, to be truly unplugged. It is ironic that in the freest country in the world, Americans as individuals seem to be losing our notion of personal freedom; in fact, we are gladly handing it over in exchange for the comforting fiction of a connected world, one in which even our cars are our friends.

Who knows where OnStar will lead? Soon, we might start paying companies to put video cameras in every room of our house in case we've fallen and can't get up, or can't find the remote. Maybe all we will have to do is push a bedside button: "Yes, Mr. Johnson?"

"Can you get the light?"

"Certainly, Mr. Johnson. Sweet dreams."

Sound absurd? Remember just a few years ago how cloning a sheep couldn't possibly lead to human cloning?

You can argue that this is all about safety and security but it seems to me that it's more about insecurity on a number of levels — the worry that, God forbid, something should be happening that I don't know about instantly and the fear that to be out of reach is to be deemed out of touch. Ultimately, though, I think we strap on these devices to guard against our worst fear of all — being hopelessly isolated and alone.

This is especially true of the youngest among us, the so-called digital generation, to whom the idea of stringing two paper cups together to make a phone would be as preposterous as, say, not having a beeper by age 14.

Recently, I was riding in the car with my 10-year-old nephew, who had a toy cell phone with him. "What are you carrying that thing around for?" I asked him.

"So I'll look important," he replied.

I tried to explain to him that all of these electronic leashes we are walking around with are like keys. The guy who has the most may look important but he's usually the least important person in the place, professionally speaking, like the janitor. I tried to explain that in the near future the most important person is going to be the one who is utterly unreachable — who receives messages only with the aid of military helicopter transport, or smoke signal, or yak.

My nephew didn't respond. He didn't know what to say, so he just kept pushing buttons, determined to make his imaginary phone call to no one.

Janet Giampietro is a contributing editor for Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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