I'm in the office, following my daughter's trip to school. At 7:48 a.m., Clare is heading south on Narragansett Avenue; two minutes later, she's going southwest on Croton Avenue. By 7:54, her bus has arrived at the school's door. (Hooray!)
I know because I'm testing uLocate FamilyFinder (www.ulocate.com), which uses global-positioning-system technology to track the movements of anyone who shares the software on your mobile-phone account. (Another day, I "watched" my wife driving — above the speed limit! — on roads around our home.)
This sort of technology, like online video that lets parents see their kids in day care, is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it's just really cool stuff. And for working parents, it offers value: If your kids fend for themselves after school, say, this lets you know they are where they're supposed to be. "It's reassurance and peace of mind," says Frank Schroth, uLocate Communications' vice president of marketing, who says 1,500 families use the service.
But uLocate also represents something more sinister, straddling the line between the urge for reasonable control and self-destructive megalomania. Pervasive technologies that offer as much information as we want also allow us a lot more than we really need. It's tempting to imagine that being a good parent or spouse means knowing as much as we can about our loved ones' lives — something we forfeit the second we enter the workplace. Trying to re-create that connection by tech proxy can produce stress and distraction.
"It's really about your attitude," says Phil Montero, who runs a consulting outfit called You Can Work From Anywhere. "You have to think about your life in a smart way, and think about how these tools fit in." Montero advises clients to create guidelines for using tech tools — that they'll check email only at certain times, for example. That helps set expectations for others — and for themselves.
Technologies such as uLocate aren't bad, per se. But they demand discipline. Turn the danged things off once in a while. Or, as Tom Pratt does, use them intelligently. Pratt, a construction manager in Garden City, New York, uses uLocate to stay connected with his two teenagers. But he does so in mostly passive ways, setting up "geofences" that trigger emails when the teens arrive home, for example.
"So," I ask, "you never check up on the kids in real time, every two minutes?"
"I don't do that... much," Pratt allows. "But when I'm bored..."
A version of this article appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.