This Summer's Digital Inventory: Using New Tech for Entertainment

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While the range increases and the quality of gadgetry improves every year, ultimately, we all have habits that are pretty well entrenched

tech at the beach- paull young.jpg

An end-of-summer ritual for us in recent years has been the comparison of how technology has evolved in the ways we access information and entertainment from our beachhead on Lake Michigan. I am pleased to report that some vacation activities are maintaining their place among adults and children: cycling, kayaking, windsurfing, tennis, jogging, walking (striding), swimming, beach picnics, a minor league baseball game, and a summer play featuring cousins, grandchildren, and neighbors. This year's Peter Pan was a great success. Also holding their own are Lego, miniature cars and trucks, Richard Scarry books, and on the way home this August, an unusual treat: a visit to Reptileland in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, a unique zoo of imposing snakes, related species, and a spectacle of animatronic dinosaurs that spit, hiss, and mesmerize grandsons with a mixture of fascination and dread.

The more technology we use, the fact is that we still have favorite ways of reading, writing, and viewing.

But what has changed each summer is the variety and preferences for digital and traditional devices. The last time the television was switched on was for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but there is a DVD player that is handy for rainy-day viewing (depending on your age and interests) of Thomas the Tank Engine videos or movies rented from the grocery store kiosk; $5 overnight, with $0.50 Monday specials. Packed into our bags this year was a Kindle (the current top-of-the-line model has a light attached that permits reading in bed), BlackBerrys, laptops, an iPad, and an iPod. The New York Times is delivered at dawn, but the now-ingrained habit of checking nytimes.com during the day has dulled the excitement that picking up the morning paper so long provided. As I've written before, a decade or so ago only the early edition of the Chicago Tribune and local papers were available. The Internet was still accessed via clunky dial-up, and magazines arrived via FedEx along with accumulated office mail. These days there are barely any letters to be passed along from the office except for charity event invitations and an occasional thank-you note.

All of our technology is now supported by a portable Wi-Fi router that, while not exactly the same as broadband at home, does make the iPad, laptop, and Kindle increasingly useful in supplying entertainment, books, and email. BlackBerrys and iPhones are the smartphones of choice, with a generational divide. The 20- and 30-somethings seem to favor the iPhones, with BlackBerrys still widely used for office email and better telephone service. This was the second summer of the iPad, so it is fair to begin assessing its real added value to other options. What works best for me are the extensions of my newspaper and magazine subscriptions. I read the Wall Street Journal and download the New Yorker, the Economist, and Bloomberg Businessweek. Pandora and the iPod library provide extensive access to music. It has been a generation since cassettes were popular, and a decade since CDs were standard (except, in our case, for listening to audiobooks on the twelve-to-fourteen-hour drive from Connecticut). The local public radio stations that reach southwestern Michigan and NPR iPad app provide programming that to me, at least, is indispensable.

With Steve Jobs's announcement last week that he had to step down as CEO of Apple, anything short of accolades for his remarkable record of accomplishment seems inappropriate. But the perfectionist that he has been, Jobs would want us to acknowledge that the weakness of the iPad is having to access movies and television downloads using iTunes. I tried to download Unknown, a so-so Liam Neeson suspense story, but gave up because the download was so slow, and though I was charged for the rental, the connection didn't work. Instead, we rented the movie from a kiosk and watched it on a laptop via Wi-Fi. (It wasn't worth it.) I see that Apple has now ended the television rental option.

Reflecting over the years, there is no doubt that the gadgetry and devices are getting more useful and efficient. But I've come happily to terms with the fundamental pleasure of reading books the traditional printed way, and still find that I read newspapers and magazines more thoroughly in print than on the screen, although I'm glad to have access to the digital versions also. But for what it's worth, this piece is being drafted with a fountain pen in a notebook with lined pages, and then it will be retyped into my laptop. The more technology we use, the fact is that we still have favorite ways of reading, writing, and viewing. Just about everyone in our summer orbit has some form of smartphone, reading device, and app-equipped tablet, but each of us also have preferences. (Facebook and Twitter are wildly popular when we are elsewhere, but do not seem to have caught on in our vacation rhythm.)

My conclusion is that, while the range of choices increases each year, and the quality of gadgetry steadily improves, ultimately, each of us has habits that are pretty well entrenched. Technology for information and entertainment plays a major role in our activities, but some elements are integrated into the patterns of our lives and others, it turns out, are not.

Image: Paull Young/Flickr.

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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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