washingtonpost.com  > Business > Columnists > Steven Pearlstein
Steven Pearlstein

Get Over The Gadgets and Deal the Cards

By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; Page E01

In the past, the conversation at my monthly poker game would turn to politics, or sports or real estate or . . . well, you know. But no longer. These days, my card-playing pals are so busy showing off their new BlackBerrys or boasting about the newest features on the Palm Pilot that we can hardly get in a decent game of Follow the Queen.

Although I complain about this conversational tyranny, it is to no avail. For my friends have me pegged, rightly, as a technophobe. I don't own a cell phone, let alone a PDA. I listen to FM radio and use only one remote to operate the family TV. Only recently did we switch from records and videotapes to CDs and DVDs. And inasmuch as I never learned to program the VCR, a TiVo isn't even on the horizon.

_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Steven Pearlstein was online to discuss this column.

_____Past Columns_____
Social Security For a Savings Society (The Washington Post, Jan 21, 2005)
Red States Make a Mockery Of Self-Reliance (The Washington Post, Jan 19, 2005)
All Credit To the Local Card Player (The Washington Post, Jan 14, 2005)
Column Archive

At work, I'm a wiz with Microsoft Word and Google searches, but still take interview notes on paper. On my desk you'll find a fresh bottle of blue-black ink and an old electric pencil sharpener. The prospect of filing columns from remote locations fills me, and The Post's technology staff, with dread.

Thus it should come as no surprise that, once again, I won't be going to the annual Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Las Vegas. I read in the Wall Street Journal that this year's show features a ski parka with headphones and a microphone built into the hood, so you can listen to your iPod or talk with your broker while snowboarding. And TiVo hopes to steal the show with word that you'll soon be able to download those missed episodes of "The OC" onto your PC.

I'm sure it's only a matter of time before someone produces an all-purpose, handheld device that will allow you to make calls, take notes, exchange e-mails, surf the Web, download movies and music, play games, transmit pictures and video, keep track of your appointments and phone lists and stock portfolio, wake yourself in the morning and remind your mother to take her medicine at night, plus tell you where you are, how to get where you are going and what the weather will be when you get there.

Do we really need all this? My poker-playing friends think so. They wax rhapsodic about how much more efficient and effective they are at everything they do. But I wonder if the utility and control they perceive is not more illusion than reality.

As a result of all these gizmos, are people really working less and relaxing more, or have they merely extended the workday to 24/7?

Does anyone enjoy rock concerts more because she can send a live photograph to friends who aren't there?

Will our kids be smarter now that they can listen to rap music, watch movies and play video games anywhere, at any time?

The problem, it seems to me, is that whatever the marginal benefit of much of this technology, there are also hidden burdens and lost opportunities.

In business, the fact that you can do all these things gives you a competitive advantage only until everyone else does it -- at which point all you've done is created a technological arms race that has no winner other than electronics firms.

Yes, technology offers time savings and convenience. E-mails are a fabulous way to communicate with customers, colleagues and kids at college. And WiFi is a godsend.

But let's also not forget the time it takes to master dense manuals and field the extra phone calls and clear out the mounds of junk e-mail. Or the mental energy required to navigate the complexity of four remote controls or remember to program in the coordinates of everyone you meet. Or the added risk if your all-in-one contraption suddenly malfunctions.

And is there no cost to losing quiet personal time to reflect and read?

My sense is that the story of much of this technology is one of supply creating its own demand -- technology that solves problems we never knew existed, satisfying urges we never knew we had, creating capabilities we never wanted or needed. Its flaw is that it confuses convenience with efficiency, information with intelligence and the number of interactions with the quality of communication.

Steven Pearlstein will host a Web discussion at 11 a.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com. He can be reached at pearlsteins@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company