Summer Gadgets

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Every summer in recent years, I have measured the development of the digital age by noting the gadgetry our three-generation family carries with us for information, communications, and entertainment to our house along the lake in rural southwest Michigan. Equally interesting (well, really only to me among those assembled) is the equipment once considered indispensable that is now ignored. This year, with four adults and three children (ages 6, 4 ¾, and 3), we have four laptops, three Blackberries, one iPhone, two iPods, one Kindle, one iPad, one iTouch, two Leapsters (simple language video games), a portable DVD player (mainly for children on the fourteen-hour car trip and rainy afternoons), and a rented mobile hot spot that ties the whole shebang together with WiFi for about $50 per month.

On the other hand, the television hasn't been turned on since the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, although we did prevail on a neighbor with cable to let us watch "Mad Men" on Sunday night. One major change this year is that a storm knocked out our telephone land line. AT&T, the local provider (these company names seem to change every year too; last year it was Ameritech, I think), told us at the end of a twenty-minute automated conversation that it would take six days to get service, and the minimum bill would be $71, unless we could show that the problem was "external," meaning their line was down and not ours. I chased a repair truck, but the technician said that, with only seven people on call, anything sooner than the schedule was out of the question. The appointment passed and the phone is still out. But, as already demonstrated, we have no shortage of other devices.

E-mail has replaced Federal Express and UPS for delivering documents. Our local post office (Lakeside) was closed several years ago, and now the post office in the next town (Union Pier) seems to have been targeted for closing also, based on the "save our post office" signs along the roadside. Public radio is still a late-afternoon staple, especially driving around to do errands, but the days when the evening began with the 6:30 broadcast news are long gone. We get the New York Times delivered (it arrives the same time it does in Connecticut), but the line-up of news boxes along the old post office has been removed except for free shoppers. This year I decided to get the Wall Street Journal as a paid app on the iPad and downloaded the free USA Today app, about which more in a moment.

Our house is still stocked with piles of children's books, some of which go back at least thirty years and get a nightly work-out. There are boxes full of Lego, Playmobil, various plastic vehicles, and board games (this year's favorite is Candyland); the point being that the traditional toys, books, and games have fared better than the analog telephones and televisions.

The Kindle is especially well loaded with summer potboilers (as the first reading device to make its mark in our household, it has held its own in the iPad competition, at least with my wife). On the top of my stack of printed books was the galley for Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, published this spring by Norton and based on a widely read Atlantic cover story from a year ago, arguing that our growing reliance on the Internet was, by rewiring our thought patterns, "making us stupid." With a substantial and persuasive reliance on Marshall McLuhan's writing of the 1960s, Carr makes the case that media (or technology) aren't just channels of information: "They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation." The paradox of this assertion is that Carr has written a decidedly thoughtful book which he explains away in a short digression: "After finishing the book, I'm already backsliding. ... I've gone back to keeping my e-mail running all the time and I've jacked into my RSS feed again." Carr insists that this transformation of our brain functions is not a process of a few years, but the continuation of a shift in the way we think that has been going on, in one way or another, for centuries and has gathered momentum to the point of real concern.

It is true that when I read the Wall Street Journal on the iPad, I tend to scroll, and USA Today and other sites get barely a skim. As for reading the New York Times (when I finally get to it), my attention span is pretty much as it has always been. Is that ingrained habit or the nature of reading newspapers as opposed to websites? I don't know. But I'll be curious to see what happens next summer when I revisit this exercise in testing what has happened with all this year's gadgetry.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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