By Jason White
(CNN) -- Geoffrey Bowker, executive director of a research institute at Santa Clara University, remembers a time when going to academic conferences meant leaving office concerns behind, hearing provocative lectures and getting to experience a new city. He especially liked visiting art galleries.
Now, wherever Bowker goes, his office goes with him. E-mails, phone calls and office documents float into his hands, demanding his attention at all hours of the day. Through a cell phone and his laptop computer, Bowker is as connected to his office at conferences as when he is there in person.
It's made him more productive, but he's not entirely satisfied.
"A huge difference for many is that we find it much more difficult to maintain barriers between work and play," said Bowker, executive director of Santa Clara University's Center for Science, Technology and Society, which studies technology's impact on culture.
The eroding distinction between work and play is one of the many paradoxes at the heart of our increasingly wireless world.
"This is always the case with new technology. Often the effects are paradoxical," Bowker said. "The overall upside is that we can maintain a rich social and cultural life while dashing from pillar to post. The overall downside is that our spiritual development -- which requires empty time, contemplation -- is suffering enormously."
Ten years ago, the level of connectedness of today's world was just a prophecy. Cell phones were big and clunky and owned by few people. BlackBerries were a kind of fruit, not all-purpose remote office devices. And Bluetooth was what kids got after eating blueberry Slurpees, not the latest and greatest standard for short-range wireless technology.
Today, the use of wireless devices is widespread in the United States, and growing.
About 71 percent of America's 108 million households own at least one cell phone, according to Forrester Research Inc. More than 25 million households now own laptop computers, according to Forrester. And 5.3 million households have wireless Internet access.
"That doesn't sound like a big number, but it is up from zero a couple of years ago. That is rapid growth," said Charles Golvin, a principal analyst at Forrester.
More and more everyday devices -- including game consoles, music players, cameras and even cars -- are being designed with wireless connectivity in mind. (Gadgets on the horizon)
"The future of devices that don't have some kind of connectivity built into them is pretty bleak. It's going to be the case that almost anything you can think of is going to connect to other things, most often wirelessly," Golvin said.
As various kinds of wireless devices become more common, the flow of content will increase as well. Movies will be downloaded in a flash and transported to any one of a number of viewers. Music will flow to cell phones. Music videos and news clips will be downloadable anywhere, anytime. These developments create new challenges for the creators and owners of this content.
"What are they going to do from a rights perspective?" Golvin asks. "Are they going to be more and more restrictive? Or are they going to embrace new business models, new ways to use content that is going to allow this stuff to flow?"
The prevalence of wireless gadgets and networks is changing how people interact with one another. Social plans are made later in the day; conversations happen more frequently but with more brevity, and expectations evolve.
"Think of the early years of the answering machine on the telephone," said James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. "You'd call someone, and at first you'd be annoyed that they'd have that annoying box answer the phone. Now, if a phone rings and rings and doesn't go to a message system, you think it is impolite."
Because this technology is designed to follow people wherever they go, it is difficult to come up with one-size-fits-all rules for wireless communication. What is OK at home may not be OK in the office. What is OK on the street may not be OK in church. (Where are your wireless manners?)
"To me the technology is ahead of our culture. The common thing we hear about these days is etiquette. Should we be allowed to talk on airplanes is a current question? The behavioral aspects haven't transformed along with the technology," said Dave Mock, author of "The Qualcomm Equation."
Beyond etiquette and the need for personal space, security issues also loom large in a wireless world. From proprietary financial data to personal photographs, more and more information than ever before is floating through the air, accessible to thieves and vandals.
"It does make people more vulnerable. The wires aren't there to be seen. ... Wireless networks are much less secure," said Sarah Hicks, a vice president at Symantec Corp., a digital security company.
Hicks advises consumers to create passwords for all their devices and networks, install software that can protect against outside attacks and viruses, and open e-mails only from known sources. (Protecting your network)
She said some wireless devices can be particularly dangerous because they constantly scan the area in search of available wireless networks. She recommends changing the settings so they don't mistakenly come across a harmful network.
"Wireless networks are great," Hicks said. "They enable a lot of freedom, but they also come with risks. Consumers need to protect themselves."
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