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It’s a difficult time to be a dedicated user of consumer technology. The pervasive nature of technology, and how this affects American citizens and their liberties on a day-to-day basis, is the theme of Technocracy as a column. While the technology we use daily has become so common as to be taken for granted, the irony is that we dare not become complacent in its use. The more integral to our lives our consumer electronics become, the greater the danger of catastrophic failure. You carry this potential failure in your pocket.

For many Americans, the common denominator is the wireless phone. A majority of adult Americans have used wireless devices to access the network of networks that is the Internet, and a third of all American citizens have done so using a mobile phone. In this way, science fiction has become science fact – so quickly that we have almost forgotten a world in which our fellow citizens did not walk from point A to point B while furiously thumb-typing on phones, their heads bent to the tiny screens.

Gene Roddenberry, whose “Star Trek” Communicators proved to be a remarkably accurate predictor of future technology (show any 8-year-old child a rerun of the old show and he or she will take for granted that those communicators are identical to the phones Mommy, Daddy and Jack Bauer use so frequently), didn’t stop there. Posthumously he predicted, through the show “Earth: Final Conflict,” a world in which television shows were routinely streamed on the Internet (natch) and citizens carried mobile communications devices called “Globals” that did everything. The Global was like a Star Trek tricorder in that it could be used for any and all data recording, transmitting and analysis purposes, not to mention video-enabled phone calls.

The Great Bird of the Galaxy‘s Global Communicators have in turn become real, as our wireless “phones” seem to do just about everything except perform well as phones. The smartphone is increasingly common, supplanting the traditional flip- or slide-phone as Americans expect their phones to do more than simply place and receive calls. According to TMCnet, fully one third of all the phones in the world are smartphones. In the United States, half of those phones are Apple’s iPhone; the iconic BlackBerry accounts for another significant (if slightly smaller) chunk of the market.

While that means that a majority of wireless phone owners are still buying more conventional phones (which nonetheless frequently incorporate wireless Internet access), the number of smartphones in use is large and still growing. We as a people have come to expect smartphone features, data access and other applications of convenience from our “phones,” which are no longer simply devices for talking to one another. The popularity of SMS text messaging, which has become so popular that laws are now being passed against it (while movie theater screens now discourage it), is one example of how the popularity of technology changes behavior society-wide.

What we tend to forget – as we grow so accustomed to the constant use of, and reliance on, consumer technology like our beloved wireless phones – is that these are products produced by business entities for profit. As a result, the most fundamental of proverbial warnings must always apply: Let the buyer beware.

You already know how awful a loss of data on your personal computer can be. An industry devoted to backing up your machine, either through plug-in devices or even over the Internet, has arisen to answer these concerns. Your PC’s hard drive has probably crashed with regularity, unless you are one of those incredibly smug Apple users – and even then, your new Snow Leopard OS X may have caused you to lose staggering amounts of data as soon as a pre-existing guest profile on your machine was used. But what of the data, including an elaborate list of contacts and calendar information (not to mention e-mails), stored on your smartphone? That, too, may be lost without warning.

Users of the T-Mobile Sidekick discovered recently, to their dismay, that data stored on certain Microsoft servers had been lost and was perhaps unrecoverable. Outraged customers demanded their data (some of which may, in fact, be restored eventually) and compensation for their trouble. In a joint statement issued Monday, T-Mobile and Microsoft said they would offer those customers a service credit and an additional 100-dollar gift card (though qualifications apply). Sales of the Sidekick mobile device were at least temporarily suspended as a result of this disaster, and many of T-Mobile’s customers must now face the fact that data stored on their phones may be gone forever.

Even when such sudden hardware failures do not occur, to own and operate a smartphone is to risk dissatisfaction with factors, features and functions well beyond your control at the customer level. MacDailyNews recently reported, somewhat gleefully, that Windows Mobile 6.5 (an operating system used for certain smartphones, compatible with Microsoft Windows) cannot begin to challenge Apple’s iPhone. (For one thing, any operating system that attempts to chip away at the iPhone’s market dominance must first fight its way past the impenetrable shield of self-righteous pomposity that characterizes dedicated users of Apple’s products.)

Anyone who uses an operating system of any kind knows that he or she is at the mercy of the developers of that OS – who determine future upgrades, patches and redesigns. The same is now true of your phone, if it is a smartphone on which you rely daily. And let’s say you do have an iPhone. If you don’t like an application you’ve purchased for it, you’re basically out of luck. You might be able to get a refund for a malfunctioning app, but don’t count on it.

Navigating our increasingly technologically facilitated world can be difficult, especially if you embrace ever-more-popular lifestyle choices such as smartphones and their accoutrements. If you make this choice, do not become complacent. Be a wary buyer, a savvy consumer, and a demanding customer.

The data you save may be your own.

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