Addicted to tech?

I came across an interesting article on CNN via Tame the Web: We’re all tech junkies now. (Note: this is an AP story that I also found on Wired.)
The article talks about how more and more people consider things like high-speed internet, MP3 players and DVRs to be essential. This got me thinking about what I’ve got, and what I consider essential:

  • laptop
  • cell phone
  • high-speed internet
  • cable TV
  • iPod
  • flash drive
  • digital camera (soon . . . soon)

Out of that list, for me the laptop and cell phone are the only items I’d class as “essential.” The other items I could make do without.

The laptop has become my central holding point for lots of personal data, and the portability enables me to take it anywhere. And, while it’s sad to admit, I simply cannot imagine my life without a computer (though I can imagine my life without a laptop, and it’d be fine). It would not be the end of the world — after all, there are brand-new computers at school I can (and do) use. But I wouldn’t be able to organize my photos (most of which exist digitally as well as in print) and see my finances all nicely arranged in one place. (A lot of the rest of what I do with my computer relies, to some extent, on having a connection to the Internet, high-speed or otherwise. We’ll get to that.)

The cell phone is essential becuase it is the only phone number anyone can reach me at regularly. Were I to cancel the contract, I’d be out $175, plus I’d have to cough up for a phone and pay for a landline. I know cell phones are tech accessories, but I don’t think of them in that way. For me, a cell phone is a phone, just like the phone on the lab assistant desk at the Tech Lab is a phone. Except there are no long-distance charges and I can use it basically anywhere. That’s convenient for me, since I spend a lot of time outside of my apartment. I also like the convenience of being able to make or receive a call if myself or someone else is running late.

High-speed internet would be the hardest to give up at this point — I’m so used to the instantaneous response that high-speed internet provides that I don’t think I’d be able to handle going back to dial-up. I should say, however, that if I move out on my own anytime in the next couple of years, I will at least seriously consider forgoing a home connection at all in favor of using wireless access points in my community. I haven’t shopped around at all because we are locked in with our cable provider, but that part of our bill is $45 each month (I think $10 is to have multiple IP addresses, so the basic service is $35). Unless there’s some other way to get it that’s cheaper, I’m not sure it’s worth the price. (Ask me again when I move out on my own and you will probably get a different answer.)

Cable TV would not be a problem for me to live without. I’d miss “The Daily Show” and “Good Eats,” but overall it’d probably be a good thing to go without cable. I’d probably watch a lot more movies — cable TV would be replaced with constant visits to the video rental store, the library, and a Netflix subscription. “CSI” must be out on DVD . . .

The iPod is one of those things that no one needs but everyone wants. I wanted an iPod for a long time, but could not really justify the expense. I saved up for it and bought it with money earned working massive amounts of overtime in the spring. I still think it’s one of the coolest things I own and I use it a lot while commuting. But I would be okay without it. There are other things to do while commuting, like stare aimlessly out the bus window or nod off on the T. Oh wait, I do that with the iPod. Hmmm . . .

The flash drive is probably the most superfluous tech accessory that I have bought. I use it for school, and keep all of my school-related documents (and website files) on it. The most recent version is always on my flash drive. But purchasing storage space was not something I needed to do — Simmons provides each student with an allotment of storage space on the servers, and that space is accessible from home (though the interface is annoying, and intimidates people who aren’t good with computers). In addition, my computer has a CD burner, as do the computers at school, and I could just have bought a couple of CD-RW’s and carted those around. But the flash drive is small and cool and convenient.

The digital camera . . . well, it’s replacing a perfectly good film camera that worked just fine the last time I used it, and probably still works just fine. I’m going digital becuase the camera will come with more features, and because of the instant gratification of being able to get the photos off the camera as soon as the event is over. Now that I am out of college, I find that I don’t usually take a full roll of photos, but just a few shots — and then I have to wait until the rest of the roll has been finished in order to get the film developed. The wait can be several months. This furthers the cycle because since I know it’ll be several months until I’ll see the actual photos, I have stopped really ever taking pictures. This is sad because I loved taking pictures in college, and I think I took some great candid shots that really captured the debauchery fun. With the digital camera, I will probably take it with me to a lot more places (it’s smaller than my film camera, but bigger than the tiny Canon Digital Elphs) and take a lot more photos.

Having thought about my own use of technology in this way, I think there’s another question to consider when looking at this article. A lot of these itmes are new versions of something else that did the same thing. Instead of DVD players and DVRs, we used our VCRs to watch movies and record shows we missed. Instead of iPods, we had walkmen and portable CD players. Instead of digital cameras, we had regular cameras. Cable TV has been around for a while, and “replaced” getting TV with rabbit ears on the roof. Everyone had a telephone, now you can bring it with you when you leave the house.

The question is, if you had surveyed people 15 years ago, what would they have considered essential? I don’t think people thought about these technologies in the same way (I personally do not think of cable TV as a technology), but I bet people would say they couldn’t imagine life without their telephone, their commute without their walkmen, and television without a VCR set to record shows they were going to miss. So what’s the real question here? Have we been addicted to these things all along, except now we think about them in a way that classes them all together under the heading of “tech?”

I think all this points to a bigger problem — and a slightly separate issue — the expense of all of these items, and how people can’t afford them but consider them essential, and get them anyway. Is that a personal problem or a cultural problem? I think it’s hard to separate.

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