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Pearlstein

Consumer Electronics

Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; 11:00 AM

Washington Post business columnist Steven Pearlstein was online to discuss his latest column, a technophobe's look at society's obsession with the latest gadgets. He writes that the problem, it seems, is that whatever the marginal benefit of much of this technology, there are also hidden burdens and lost opportunities.

A transcript follows.

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About Pearlstein

Steven Pearlstein writes about business and the economy for The Washington Post. His columns on the economy appear every Wednesday and Friday.

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Philadelphia: Mr. Pearlstein:

Even though some gadgets appear frivolous at first glance, don't you think that they improve communication by allowing the viewer or reader to interpret without having to worry about things like dialect or language barriers.

Symbols and simplified text just can't be spoken!

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, they improve communication. The questions, I think, are (1) do the gains in communication offset any costs and (2) are there unintended consequences from having this new mode of communication that may not be good for the company or the household or the society as a whole. The cell phone is a good example. Sure, its great when you get a flat tire to be able to call a tow truck. But is it also great the way people now call each other at the drop of the hat to get help or share a piece of gossip rather than waiting until they see them later? Do people lose the ability to fend for themselves and get themselves out of jams through other means? If the time on the phone comes out of time thinking or reading, isn't there a cost?

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Arlington, Va.: Amen, amen, amen to your column this morning. My take on the whole trend is this: These are good gadgets for people who are important and need to communicate quickly (heart surgeons and the like), but that doesn't cover everybody. Most people THINK they are important enough to own these things and wind up having such important cell phone conversation as "Not much. What are you doing?"

Steven Pearlstein: Exactly.

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Rockville, Md.: I have a Blackberry for work. While I was on vacation over the holidays, I could periodically check in on my e-mail at work and thus not have 100 or 200 messages to go through upon my return. I was able to go through these messages at my leisure and was thus able to get right back into work on my return. This seems like an efficient tool to me.

Steven Pearlstein: It is. But I just got an email from somebody who said he was out on a blind date with a very attractive woman and things were going pretty well until he caught her checking her messages under the table. Seems she was addicted to it and couldn't go an hour or two without plugging in. That's obsessive behavior, I think, that is encouraged by this technology. And I don't think you cant think about the advantages you describe, which are real, without considering the downside consequences, which can be just as real.

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Providence, R.I.: Walter Cronkite promised on an episode of the 20th Century back in the 60's that "computers would allow Man to enjoy more leisure time with our families". He was wrong. We have become slaves to our computer-based gadgets. Our family sees each other less and talks less than ever before.

Your column says it all. Well done.

Steven Pearlstein: Thanks.

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Manassas, Va.: Thank you so much for your column this morning. I agree that as we move forward with the latest technology, our time has become more and more ruled by all the gadgets and the constant feeling of never being able to have time off from work. In 1992 I worked for a very successful attorney in Richmond, and at that time he commented to me that while the existing technology which existed at the time was great, it was causing more pressure on him because his clients were expecting much faster turnaround time than in the old days of typewriters and White Out. There's also a dark side to all this technology - people who take all the latest gadgets with them and get behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Last month a co-worker of mine was using a company vehicle for business, and she got hit head-on by a drunk driver who was yakking on his cell phone! I'm amazed that she survived the crash, but now she is facing several months of pain, doctor's appointments and physical therapy as a result of the accident. It's nice to be able to do work faster, but there's got to be a point where people need to put all the stuff aside and concentrate on more important things - like driving in traffic, which is bad enough here. Thanks.

Steven Pearlstein: You're welcome. You raise another interesting point, which is that once it is possible to contact somebody on a BlackBerry, or by cellphone, suddenly its not something that enables you to do something -- it is expected that you'll have it and be available by colleagues and customers. And suddenly, they've shifted work/cost/convenience/time from themselves to you, without necessarily paying you anything more.

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Laurel, Md.: Good column today (Note: pre-paid cell phone plans offer 30-50 minutes of talk time a month for $100/year. Good option for those of us whose calls are mostly "I'm leaving the store now and will be home in 10 minutes.")

Could we discuss your Christmas Eve column about giving: "One of the blind spots of classical economics is that it cannot explain why people give money and time to charity. This is particularly true of supposedly profit-maximizing companies, which year after year -- often without much fanfare or publicity -- provide the crucial base of support for many of the nonprofit organizations in the Washington region that provide necessities of life to those most in need. "

One of the companies you cite is Capital One. One week later they were the subject an article by Christine Mayers about their predatory lending practices. Another is AOL who sell internet service at twice the rate of basic ISPs. Aren't these companies really just promoting positive ideas about themselves for a tiny fraction of what they get from people who don't examine them critically enough?

My favorite corporate charity is Mutual of Omaha. Anyone close to my age probably associates them with saving tigers and promoting sustainable environments for wildlife. Their core business is selling the highest-markup, crummiest insurance ($-day-while-sick and travel accident) there is.

washingtonpost.com: Charity That Defies Economics (Dec. 24, 2004)

Steven Pearlstein: Well, let's take your points in order. This call to say I'm in the car and on my way home is the perfect example of technology providing marginally very little benefit. Yes, occassionally you'll say, I'm glad you called, could you pick up a quart of milk. But on the other hand, maybe I was sleeping or in the middle of a project that I had to put down. And if you have a family of six constantly checking in like that, pretty soon you need a phone receptionist.

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Steven Pearlstein: As to the second point, companies, like people, do good things and some not so good things. We write about all the bad things in newspapers all the time. It is sort of what we do. But once a year, I don't think its too much to point out the good things.

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Washington, D.C.: While I am not quite the luddite that you seem to be, I agreed with most of what you wrote today. Except the part about the main beneficiaries of the electronics escalation - while the electronics industry clearly gains, don't these advances increase overall productivity in companies, benefiting shareholders? Maybe that's too much of a stretch, but I can see how that would happen.

Steven Pearlstein: The productivity question is the key question for a recovering economics writer like me. And there is no doubt that there is productivity enhancement here, maybe even significant, for certain people in certain jobs. For traveling sales people, or foreign correspondents -- sure, some of this technology is revolutionary. But for me, is there really such a big difference between having my occasional appointments on a BlackBerry or writing them in a pocket organizer. Wouldn't pay phones be almost as good as cell phones much of the time? Does picture taking really come up that often that most people need a camera in their phone? Again, these are questions of degree I am raising.

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Arlington, Va.: What are the chances you'll be playing Internet poker any time soon?

Steven Pearlstein: Nice. But the reason I like the poker game is really the interaction with the people and learning, over time, how they play and trying to use that to my advantage. I think I'll stick to that.

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Whitehouse Station, N.J.: I partially agree with you, but I think the issue is that they focus "on" the gadget rather than what they can do with the gadget. I find much new technology disappointing in really providing something that I value. Because what I value is learning about science and technology. I own a webcam, but I use it on my telescope not what it was intended for but it helps me do something I enjoy.

Steven Pearlstein: We can say that this technology is useful from time to time. One problem I have is that, at my advanced age, on the occasion that I turn to the gizmo, I've forgotten how to operate it. Classic case is our digital camera, which is not intuitive to use and has a manual that reads like it was translated from Japanese into Hindi before being translated into English (its a Sony).

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College Park, Md.: I agree with a lot of the ideas in this article, particularly with the need to be cognizant of when technology is making us more productive versus serving as a mere toy. As a technology efficiency trainer with www.setconsulting.com I find myself constantly questioning people as they upgrade their phones, computers, or PDAs. Not only does one need to carefully choose the devices they're working with on a regular basis, but one needs to invest the time to truly understand new technology (as you posited). Newer is not always better.

These days devices often don't even ship with manuals. I find myself helping a lot of clients once they've just purchased a Treo or GPS or other device, and I cringe when folks invest $600 in a smartphone and only use it to make phone calls. People need to either invest in training or reserve a lengthy amount of time to get their devices up and running, especially if they want the device to communicate with other systems they have in place. With that in mind, hopefully people can truly use technology as a vehicle rather than an obstacle to getting things done or enjoying their lives.

Steven Pearlstein: Good point. And clever marketing, besides.

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Wayne, Pa.: If I am out of the office for a few days I come back to no less than 100 emails. As a result my workday is extended, impacted, and the overall quality of my time off is diminished because I know I have this "mountain" waiting for me when I return.

The advent of the cell phone, voice messages also carry these psychological burdens. The thought of allowing cell phones on airplanes makes me shudder! Imagine being next to someone for three hours chatting all the way! Spare me. Do you think we will have a "Miss Manners" emerging about proper uses of this technology and how to cope with the psychological impact it has on all of us?

Steven Pearlstein: Actually, I suspect there is a developing technology etiquette that will be enforced in many instances. I've heard of a number of CEOs who ban BlackBerries at meetings they conduct. And we have to realize that there is a network effect here. The more that people have email, for example, the more junk email is an effective tool, increasing the total volume of junk mail. That's one reason supply creates its own demand.

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Washington D.C.: Any advice for taming the demands on our time that come from being available anywhere many different ways? In Tokyo last month I saw a guy talking on two different cell phones while typing in an IM on the subway. How do we reclaim personal time?

Steven Pearlstein: One way is simply to adopt the Nancy Reagan strategy: Just say no. It is one thing to use this stuff because you like it or need it or it makes you more effective. It is another to use it because you are expected to use it. We need to start disabusing people of the expectation of instant gratification.

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Bowie, Md.: Seeing as it's the kind of thing you normally write about, could you address the fact (if it's a fact) that the technology industry makes more money selling a new computer to a techie every year than it would introducing new customers to their first, simple to use computer or other gadget.

Is this another form of digital divide?

Steven Pearlstein: It is true that companies make more money selling the newest technology than selling an old one that has been widely copied and has become a low-margin commodity item. And yes, they probably spend some serious money trying to convince people that they need this new stuff.

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Philadelphia: Lol,

I don't know if I want my heart surgeon talking on his cell phone, or using his blackberry while I'm on the table.

I don't understand how you determine who is 'important' enough? And since we can communicate in this way, what is the harm?

Steven Pearlstein: I like communicating this way, too. And I don't want to determine for anyone else what technology is really useful and that which isn't. I just want to get people thinking a bit more critically about these choices.

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Boston, MA: I agree with you completely about the industry creating a demand for their supply. I'll never get over hearing a friend say in one breath:

"I never used my Palm Pilot much, but I'm so excited to get a new Dell Axiom -a newer color PDA]"

I have a question though: I'm in my early 30s, so I don't really have perspective on this. But before the boom of consumer electronics, what did people spend their disposable income on?

Steven Pearlstein: Drugs, rock concerts, and relatively more expensive cars, phone service, airline tickets, televisions etc.

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Washington, D.C.: I'll trade the demands on my personal time for the enrichment in life technology offers. Give me satellite radio over the garbage broadcast in this city. Maybe the same one day for movies....

Steven Pearlstein: I'm thinking of getting satellite radio as well. So you see, I'm not totally retrograde.

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Washington, D.C.: Isn't it Communism to think about life without the benefits that Capitalism offers us, like new electronic devices that give us things to talk about with our friends at poker games?

Steven Pearlstein: Not sure what communism or capitalism have to do with it. Markets are producing what they are producing, and I'm participating in the market-oriented process by which some of its excesses are corrected.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mr Pearlstein, I enjoyed your column this morning, and I agree with your final sentence. However, to put things in perspective, do you think that some people had the same thoughts about the typewriter when it was invented? It may just take society a bit of time to digest each technological advance. Perhaps we are just in period of adjustment (or indigestion).

Steven Pearlstein: We are in a period of adjustment, of adapting the technology in the right way and simplifying it so it can be really user friendly and easy to use. As for the typewriter, I can type very fast -- as fast as you can talk. I can't write that fast. That's a real difference, to say nothing of the legibility. As I say, I'm not opposed to all these advances. But for every advance like email, there is the electric bottle opener, this year's hot seller for Christmas.

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Washington, D.C.: Wouldn't you agree that misapplication and misuse of technology is a common aspect of its assumption into culture, especially early on? That family that would perhaps need a receptionist will figure a way ultimately to balance the benefits and the costs of the new technology eventually.

Steven Pearlstein: Indeed. And that will come faster if we occassionally talk about these issues, like we're doing here.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I am a real estate broker in Silver Spring and could not survive without my cell phone and wireless laptop but I feel we have gone overboard with our constant use of technology. After visiting Lancaster, PA this summer I wish we could all adopt the philosophy about technology that the Amish embrace. The Amish do not hate technology. They just stop and ask the question, "Will this new technology hurt us more than help us?" They now allow Amish families that have a business to have a telephone but it must be outside the house. They have telephone houses that look like outhouses. I wish restaurants had those telephone houses outside the restaurant and made all the cell phone users go out there to take their calls. My question to you is: Do you think we can get through to the American public and explain that technology is good but everybody needs a break sometime and for their peace of mind as much as ours can they turn off the cell phone, iPod, wireless laptop for 1 hour for dinner and go back to the good old days when you talked to the people that are actually with you at the dinner table?

Steven Pearlstein: Amen.

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Baltimore: I have never read your column before, but my friendly suggestion is to get over it. The technology you speak of is here to stay (until a newer version comes along). Much like my grandfather never got used to the "new-fangled" technology of his age, many of the older workers in my office struggle with the basic technology tools that are in the workplace today. As a younger worker (and I'm not a secretary or in technical support) who is constantly being bothered with requests from older colleagues to show them how to insert a footnote, manage their email, print to letterhead, or even send a fax to multiple recipients, I wish that they would stop complaining and pull out the manual already.

Best of luck with your approach, but as I see it, you need a basic community college class in computers and PDAs.

Steven Pearlstein: My young colleague, Neil Irwin, could definitely second your comment.But I'm still waiting for that easy-to-use manual. And by the way, have you ever tried to use these electronic phone books? I'll take the old printed version any day.

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Bethesda, Md.: Core needs but new answers.

Most technology that creates its own need will die out after a time. Technologies that provide good answers to core NEEDS thrive. Communication is a core need. At first it was verbal only, then written. We had letters for centuries, and then the telegraph, which made communication faster. The telephone allowed us unlimited communication from select locations (office/home/payphone). The cell phone allows us communication from anywhere. HOW we solve the communication need changes, THAT a solution to a need will be used, doesn't.

As an economist, don't just look at money as a proxy for benefits. Recognize that perceived costs at the point of decision making, and perceived benefits are the key elements in the buy/no buy decision. If you don't "believe" the benefits outweigh the costs, you don't buy. The feel good, non-monetary benefits that are perceived when donating to charity should outweigh the resources required, in the mind of the giver. Otherwise, it completely destroys classical economics and shows people knowingly and willingly taking an negative expectation situation with no reward.

Steven Pearlstein: I couldn't agree more. It is just that I think people haven't thought enough about the non-monetary (or not measurable) costs and benefits. That's really my point, too.

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Reston, Va. - Take my Blackberry, PLEASE: The only indulgence I've allowed myself is a nice cellphone, other than that, I'm just not into gadgets. Until my boss bought them for us for work. Now he expects us to be always on, truly my work is now 24/7. He once emailed me in the middle of the night Saturday and was furious when I did not read it until 6am Monday morning. There is an expectation of use that comes with these gadgets, and it makes me sick.

Steven Pearlstein: Good example. Thanks for sharing.

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Washington, D.C.: Hiya Steven

The manner of delivery of information has far outshadowed the content of the information. Most emails are more like post cards than letters. Most cell phone calls are the same. Blackberries allow us to ship this drivel to each other quicker, but the content is still the same. Technology has given us the opportunity to have more leisure time, but we have chosen not to capitalize on it. Today, we don't do in 8 hours what used to take us 10. We have chosen to do 12 hours worth in 10. No net gain in free time--quite the opposite. We see the effects of a lack of leisure time. Kids are babysat by the television, parents eat, sleep, and work. Everyone would benefit from more leisure time.

Steven Pearlstein: Precisely.

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Washington, D.C.: Back in the 1980s I was offered a car phone, but said "Thanks, but No Thanks". I could see where this was headed. My car was my only refuge at that point, somewhere that I could be free of interruptions. We are now pressured to be "available" anywhere, all of the time.

There's an ad currently running on one of the radio stations that mentions a radio controlled car. While in the supermarket, I often see the human equivalent... a robot under remote control from someone miles away. Go halfway down aisle 5, left side, third shelf, 20 ounce container. There's no longer even the opportunity for the little unexpected things that bring joy to life. So what if hubby doesn't bring back exactly what was required?

I've also seen cell phones literally become a ball and chain. One coworker had no faith in his wife's fidelity, so he got her a cell phone so he could keep tabs on her. He had to know where she was every moment and called at random times just to check up on her. Of course, there's a flip side to this... I had another coworker who arranged her secret rendezvous via cell phone. Ain't technology great?

Steven Pearlstein: Would be interesting to know relationship between cellphone and marital infidelity. Italians seem to be doing pretty well before the era of the phone.

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Rockville, Md.: All this fast communication can be a real danger to relationships. A case in point: A relative recently harmed her relationship with a cousin by sending an e-mail full of raw feelings and anger. It was just too easy to type and hit the 'Send' button. If the old-fashioned letter (handwritten, preferably) was the medium, the composer would have had time to reconsider the consequences of the letter while looking for an envelope, writing the address, licking the stamp and getting to the post office. But, and I agree with your premise, in a world of hurry-up there is no time.

Steven Pearlstein: Again, another good example.

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Whitehouse Station, N.J.: I also own a foreign language digital camera, a Canon. It has many more functions than I use, but I bought it for the functions I recognized that I wanted. Those I do use all the time (especially now with the grandchildren)and so remembering how to use them is not a problem . If the device is something that you use so infrequently that you forget how, then you probably did not need it in the first place.

Steven Pearlstein: I suppose I didn't need it. For me, the old fashioned reflex camera using film was fine. But now my father expects me to send photos out to him in New Mexico this way. And my wife likes to be able to file them away electronically. We had also been having trouble with film getting ruined by airport screening machines. So there you have it.

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Arlington, Va.: Steven, I sympathize with where you're coming from. I have to suspect, though, that when writing was first invented, the older generation made many of the same criticisms about how it was changing society. "Children's minds are decaying because they no longer have to memorize epics and genealogies; they just read them off of paper." "Writing imposes so many more demands on the ordinary worker; most people don't need ink and paper to do their jobs."

Similarly, a thousand years from now, there will be people complaining about the increasing prevalence of quantum-phased brain transducers in the workplace. "Now my clients expect me to think ten times faster." "Most people don't need fourth-dimensional connectivity."

Some things are timeless.

Steven Pearlstein: Yes, there is a luddite quality to the argument, I admit. But I hope I've not overstated the point.

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Arlington, Va.: I enjoyed your column, but I'm not sure why the latest wave of tech gadgets is any different, in terms of changing the pace of life and costing us privacy and leisure, than any other everyday-use technological innovation to come along in the past few hundred years. I'm sure people (rightfully) had their concerns about the car, and about the land-line telephone. Speeding life up seems to be what technology does. A technophobe, as you describe yourself, is really just someone comfortable with a certain technological standard who feels unsettled when the standard starts to change.

Steven Pearlstein: Maybe that's it.

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Rockville, Md.: I think an important trend which had been overlooked is the concurrent increase in gadgets and increase in "social disorders" and anti-depressant prescriptions. It's not that our children are suddenly diseased, it's that we're all too busy interacting with and through machines that we've forgotten how to interact with people are modeling this behavior.

Steven Pearlstein: Well, that's n interesting perspective. I have no reason to know it is true, but there is something intuitive about it.

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Columbia, Md.: I love the story of a well dressed woman in a Georgetown bar who was begging, literally begging someone, anyone to loan her a cell phone. When it was pointed out there was a payphone buy the door, she indignantly replied "I wouldn't be caught dead talking on that!"

Steven Pearlstein: Good story.

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Jacksonville, N.C.: Good column today. I am one of those that has all the technology at my disposal - the Palm, the Blackberry, the cell phone. Having used all of these I actually had to go back to paper for my scheduling and planning. The electronic devices don't give me the picture of my schedule that I need. The Blackberry is good for looking at e mail when I am away, and it is easier than lugging around a laptop, but I don't allow it to intrude into my evenings. The cell phone is useful but I don't take it everywhere. I am fascinated with all the new technology but have found that trying to keep up with the changes and upgrades is too hard and usually not that beneficial. And to be honest - just trying to keep batteries charged with the right cord is a chore in itself. I too can hardly wait to board planes and listen to everyone's phone conversations.

Steven Pearlstein: Sounds like you've got the right attitude about all this.

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Columbia, Md.: One of the aspects you didn't touch on, specifically regarding cell phones, is how some of the feature marketed are only to produce revenue. I have a friend whose daughter ran up a $400 bill in one month; not because she was talking, she was playing the games that came with the phone. Nowhere was it made clear that while playing the games, she was on the network and therefore being charged for the minutes. The same applies to internet access also.

Steven Pearlstein: Didn't know that about games.

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McLean, Va.: I'll preface this by saying that I'm a computer programmer. PC's, Palm Pilots, and some other stuff.

But my pda, like yours, is a notebook and a pen. Doesn't need batteries, doesn't break when dropped, reasonably tolerant of water damage.

My cellphone is only used for phone calls. It's been one of the better investments I've made. When I was unemployed I put the cell number on the resume. That way I didn't have to sit at home and wait for the phone to ring (especially as, until last summer, it was a long wait...) I could, instead, answer calls (and set up interviews) while doing side work, at the beach, or when travelling. Like most electronic devices, it has an off button.

E-mail is very useful at work for sending ideas around for comments without having to stop everything, and everyone, and hold a meeting. Tremendous productivity enhancer. At home it's not as useful most of the time. A whitelist (people I know) takes care of the spam (if they're not known, it's assumed to be spam), and most of the people I know are in town. The exception is my father, in Utah, who uses me for tech support. E-mail is very helpful there, as we can send screenshots back and forth along with written explanations. Much easier than doing it over the phone, and cheaper (for him) than having an expert come to his house.

Don't watch enough TV to need a Tivo. But the user interface on those things is great. Much easier to program than a VCR. If I watched more TV, I'd get one.

I'm getting a digital camera soon, but only because it's less expensive than staying with film. Really. I shot over 700 frames last year, at about 1$/frame to buy, develop, print, and burn to cd. So even a high end digital slr would pay for itself in a couple of years. A 'good enough' point and shoot digital would pay for itself much faster.

The advantages of my current 35mm SLR camera, a Pentax k-1000 clone, are that it requires no batteries, and the only controls are f-stop, exposure, and shutter release. Oh, and the film winding/rewinding levers. I've memorized the basic f-stop/shutter speed settings for 200 speed film, so I don't need a light meter (thus, no batteries). It's robust, too. But the cost of staying with film is just too high.

Steven Pearlstein: Again, that all sounds very reasonable.

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Oakland, Md.: Isn't it easier and quicker to write in an appointment book than it is to use a PDA. And what does a Blackberry do?

Steven Pearlstein: If you have to ask, you probably don't need one.

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Fairfax, Va. I won't give my cell phone number to anyone at the office precisely so that I can enforce what I consider reasonable boundaries. I have a colleague who went on vacation last fall and another colleague called him on his cell phone while he was gone. What sort of vacation is that?

As far as the Blackberry, my rule is that it is a tool to allow you to access e-mail when you would normally have access but for some reason do not, and for that purpose it can be quite useful--for example, I was at a deposition one day and the witness said something that I thought disagreed with what we had heard before. I was able to e-mail a colleague to clarify. But the people who check their e-mail before going to bed, etc., are just either psycho or too impressed with themselves. Really, what's the point? (My colleagues and I took our secretary to lunch last month. One of the others kept looking at his Blackberry under the table. I was really close to grabbing it and smashing it on the floor. It was rude to our secretary to do that.)

Steven Pearlstein: See, I'm not making this stuff up.

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Washington, D.C.: My dad and I are obsessed by the latest technology. The top Christmas presents this year were the new iPod and portable XM radio. Even though these gadgets take some time getting used to and there are manuals to be read I think in the end they make life a lot easier. I no longer have to sift through cd's in the car or make sure that I don't overload CD space when I am burning one. I think that saves a lot of time in the end. I think this is more long term vs. short term. Do you not think that many gadgets today make life a lot easier than it was say 100 years ago?

Steven Pearlstein: The answer to that, like most good question, is "It depends." Yes and no.

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Queens, N.Y.: I have heard that many people have a "soft addiction" to checking their messages. I think that is true.

I also don't have TiVo (or cable), PDA or Blackberry etc etc. I get faced with the question from my boss "Don't all young people know how to use these things?" I tell her I am not all that young (I am in my 30s), and that the most tech-savvy person I ever knew was a 70-something professor at GWU. What I don't say is since she has all these gadgets, she should read the manuals and not bug me!

Steven Pearlstein: I think we have the germ of another column here, judging from this backlash against those of us who are always asking for help.

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In the server room, D.C.: Reston, the problem isn't the handheld; it's your boss. If he expects you to answer email in the middle of the night, the proper response is a disbelieving tone when you say in a loud voice, "You expect me to answer email in the middle of the night?"

The Blackberry has an auto off/on function that turns it off and on at preset times for weekdays and weekends. The default is off at 11 pm and on at 7 am. Use it.

Steven Pearlstein: Well said.

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Philadelphia: Great column, and I'm a moderate technophile. The kicker is instant messaging. It's redundant (uh, e-mail anyone?), inefficient (much faster to say it than type it), and brings down the intelligence of communications. I fear for the day when I'll be relying on the IM generation to fund my retirement -- oh that's right, Bush will solve that problem for me.

Steven Pearlstein: I'll leave the politics to someone else, but I think you are definitely right about IM.

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Washington, D.C.: This doesn't really relate, but I thought of it after reading Columbia, MD's comment - I knew the digital age had reached EVERYONE when, during lunch hour on 18th and L, I saw someone begging for change. Sitting on the ground, cup in one hand, she had a cell phone in the other and was talking while rattling the cup. Unbelievable.

Steven Pearlstein: Wonderful.

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Steven Pearlstein: That's it for today, folks. Good discussion, although I was expecting more pushback from technology boosters, as well as my poker gang. See you next week.

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