This just in: 'America Feels Good'

There you are sitting at a traffic light, peering at the drivers in other cars.

They're all chatting away on their cellphones, vaguely aware of the lights changing. You invent plausible scenarios for these drivers: The soccer mom in her SUV appears to speak in short bursts, nod, then speak again - perhaps directing a hungry teen to preheat the oven. An addled man, coffee in one hand, phone in the other, may be calling to say he's late. Others check stock quotes, make sure a shipment went out, confirm an appointment.

How urgent these transactions may be is often debatable. As with so many things, our cellphone excess is more a matter of access - because we can, we do.

Still, much of the buzz on cellphones is basically personal - things that might actually affect that ride home in the car. A call to say you're late, for instance, may make for a less frenzied, more sensible drive; a pre-dinner call may prompt a grocery stop.

There is, one could argue, some link between these calls and their context.

That link, of course, isn't mandatory, especially among the hyper-inquisitive, who need to know whatever there is to know as soon as it's knowable.

So it was that Gallup, the polling firm, offered its election NewsAlerts last fall, with the promise of daily tracking numbers from the presidential campaign. When new polling figures were posted to Gallup's website each day, users could be notified by the digital device of their choosing.

Granted, for most of us, there was no dearth of news about the campaign or candidates, much less a need to be beeped or beamed with every late-breaking electoral twitch. Yet so popular were the campaign alerts that Gallup has expanded the service.

Just pick a category - business, arts, lifestyle, science - and word of the latest stories can be sent to your cellphone, pager, or personal digital assistant.

In fact, custom services like this already exist in e-mail. Many media firms offer headlines on the topics you choose, delivered daily to your e-mailbox. And some firms now offer breaking news and weather alerts via wireless devices for people on the go.

But when was the last time you welcomed, say, a lifestyle headline on your cellphone or pager?

Frankly, why would you welcome a lifestyle headline on your cellphone or pager?

It's odd enough to receive an e-mail that proclaims, "Americans Generally In a Good Mood These Days." That was a recent headline, delivered by Gallup.

Stranger still would be the same headline via cellphone, or as a text message on your beeper. There you are, waiting to hear from your son whose plane is late, and instead you learn that America Feels Good.

Is there some reason that news of the nation's mood has to arrive with such false fanfare?

In the pre-wired world, our interests couldn't be so neatly sliced and diced and formatted for personal delivery. We were relegated to one-size-fits-all news. Now, with all of our fancy gadgetry, we have generic news that purports to be personal.

With such a muddle of messages vying for our attention, the "personal" ones - those that have some real connection to our lives - begin to look downright intimate. After all, the cellphone call to say you're late assumes that someone actually cares.

Joan Silverman is a freelance writer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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