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Originally published Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Elsewhere, U.S.A.": We modern-day multitaskers are owned by gadgets

In "Elsewhere, U.S.A.," author and sociology professor Dalton Conley looks at our hyperdriven, cell/email/text-addicted society way of life and what it means for the next phase of human development. Conley speaks Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Dalton Conley

The author of "Elsewhere, U.S.A." will discuss his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Town Hall Seattle. Tickets are $5 and are available at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.

"Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety"

by Dalton Conley

Pantheon, 221 pp., $24

I finished up "Elsewhere, U.S.A.," Dalton Conley's book about our pathetically cell/email/text-addicted society while on an airplane. The 30-something man next to me used his BlackBerry right up to the last legal second, then pounded away on his computer nonstop, then began to bark into his phone as soon as one wheel hit pavement. He bounced his right leg, rapidly, for the entire two hours and 45 minutes. It was like being locked inside a closet with a giant bumblebee.

It took enormous self-control not to smack him upside the head with Conley's book and say, "Read this!" Not because it is a handy guide to reversing his behavior, but because it so convincingly describes such a rotten time in human evolution. If Dante had room for one more circle, I believe it would be populated by an airplane full of leg-wiggling multitaskers who fear that being out of phone contact is like being out of oxygen.

Conley's intelligent, only slightly stuffy book reads like a series of connected lectures, as is appropriate for the chair of sociology at New York University. (He is also the author of "Honky," a memoir on growing up white in a black neighborhood, and other works about how race, class and family birth-order shape us for life.)

In Conley's eyes, my airplane seatmate is not just annoying, he's emblematic of dramatic societal changes:

"Changes in three areas of our lives — the economy, the family, and technology — have combined to alter the social world and give birth to this new type of American professional. This new breed — the intravidual — has multiple selves competing for attention within his/her own mind, just as externally, she or he is bombarded by multiple stimuli simultaneously. ... In short, for many of us, intravidualism has displaced — or at least competes with — individualism."

Conley is a fine cartographer of this change, especially as he maps women's status in big-earning couples, and the divide that's widening between professionals scrambling to buy more status goods while service workers toil longer just to keep food on the table. He overgeneralizes occasionally about differences between the haves and have-nots, but his important point still gets made: We're all in this mess together.

Conley isn't a doomsayer, however. And he determinedly avoids being prescriptive for the most part. But when he ventures a prediction, he sounds optimistic: Employers, parents, partners and intraviduals need to "blend and bend rather than build walls between the domains of life" to succeed, he writes. Revamping our tax structure and government social-services safety net wouldn't hurt either, he adds.

This book was written before the dawning of the neo-Depression now deepening around us, and many of its insights feel more ominous now. Conley writes about the so-called winner's curse — an economists' term for the top bidder who "wins" an auctioned item, but only by virtue of paying too much, i.e., more than others were willing to spend.

The winner's curse, he writes, became rampant once the marketplace permeated every aspect of our lives. Whether bidding on eBay and Hotwire, applying for college, negotiating salary or mortgage rates, we became a society of people worried about overpaying, coming up short, missing the good deal.

Most of us are energetically blaming poor regulation and corporate greed for our denuded retirement accounts and layoffs. Conley's perambulations around the sociological factors might just jolt us out of that circular fuming.

Somewhere between accepting the idea that our kids must be scheduled 10 hours a day and standing in line at dawn in order to get a faster iPhone, we bought into something that now owns us.

We have met the enemy and it is our own wired, multitasking, leg-wiggling selves.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a Portland writer.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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