Are We Reaching Techno-Digital Overload?

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Last April, when the iPad was released, I placed it on my dresser next to the iPod, Kindle, and BlackBerry Bold 9000, across the room from my desktop computer. My unexpected thought was whether I really needed all this stuff, especially since, only five years ago, I made it through the day with a Treo (e-mail, but few other frills), a laptop for travel, piles of books I intended to read, and a large stack of CDs, plus a radio, which is still the first thing that gets turned on in the early morning for NPR. It wasn't long before the iPad found its place. I became a huge fan of Pandora, Internet radio that is like having a second iPod, and was a regular visitor to iBooks. I now have nineteen apps, many of which are merely duplicates of print subscriptions I already had, including the Wall Street Journal and the Economist.

"It's mind frying to contemplate the millions of dollars and person years that were spent on products and services that now fill the Great Tech Graveyard"

Like so many millions of us, I have succumbed to the gadgetry that, on reflection, really are just add-ons to what I have had for years: a television loaded with cable channels, a half-dozen telephones scattered around the house, bookshelves and magazine racks, and the computer, which is a gateway to infinite communication and information.

Lately, as I prepared each week to write about the media issues that are the mainstay of these pieces, I realized that I had become vaguely uncomfortable managing all this accumulated equipment and simultaneously had fallen out of phase with the most popular of the social networking breakthroughs -- Facebook and Twitter, in particular. Of course, much of this is generational. Stories about teenagers sending thousands of text messages a month are merely the descendents of complaints about time their parents spent chattering on the telephone. All of the hottest business uses of social networks and the Internet have, we are reminded constantly, co-opted the print and television advertising that had supported the mightiest of enterprises for decades, all of which are now scrambling to stay in the fray.

So I was enormously pleased and relieved to read David Pogue in the New York Times marking the tenth anniversary of his influential "State of the Art" column reflecting my own sense of unease: We have been engulfed with devices, which convey contents and communication channels that we are persuaded are breakthroughs to connections without which we are missing what is now said to be indispensable. Pogue writes:

Nobody can keep up. Everywhere I go I meet people who express the same reaction to consumer tech today: there's too much stuff coming too fast. It's impossible to keep up with trends, to know what to buy, to avoid being left behind. They're right. There's never been a period of greater technological change. You couldn't keep up with all of it if you tried. Well, here's a dirty little secret: It's almost too much for me. Heck, it's my job to stay on top of this stuff -- and even for me it's like drinking from a fire hose.

Thank goodness this leading arbiter of the tech revolution (whose column, admittedly, I read in a newspaper feature in an easy chair) has asserted that we can only absorb so much before it begins to become a jumble. Clearly, we enjoy the ability to expand the horizons and the means of what we use, but as the New Year approaches, it may be time to declare that every heralded advance is not necessarily an improvement or even necessary. Among the recent Web-based search and message functions that I've taken a pass on are Microsoft's Bing, Google's Chrome, Facebook's e-mail, and incessant texting across a variety of platforms. I'm not ready yet to adopt streaming as an essential way to view movies or television programming. Netflix recently announced that its mail-order DVD rental service would soon be surpassed by delivering video online. The Wall Street Journal said this development "poses a threat to the traditional way consumers watch movies and TV: cable, phone and satellite systems." Actually, we gave up Netflix a couple of years ago when we realized how many options we had to watch movies on demand, including the neighborhood theaters, the DVR (once we figured it out), and rental services on iTunes and Amazon, which we've never used.

Obviously, it is pointless to suggest that we call a time-out in the unveiling of new technologies and related content (apps as games, enhanced books, and literally thousands of other uses are still in the earliest stages of sorting out economic models). Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and the host of other major smartphone manufacturers all have successfully marketed their increasingly sophisticated products and output to us, all in the first decade of the 21st century. Just thinking about what may happen in the coming years makes me dizzy. The winners are few. The unsuccessful contenders are many. As Pogue observed: "It's mind frying to contemplate the millions of dollars and person years that were spent on products and services that now fill the Great Tech Graveyard: Olympus M-Robe, Pocket PC, Smart Display, MSN Explorer ... Palm organizers" and so on. Facebook and the iPad were this year's champions of brilliant marketing, with Mark Zuckerberg as Time's Person of the Year -- both icon and demon at 26 -- and Steve Jobs' ascendance into a stratosphere of unmatched technical celebrity. They deserve the recognition, but as we confront the inevitable next wave of what engineers and salesmen conjure, there is a case to be made for placing our digital exploration and consumption on pause; in the meantime, happy holidays.

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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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