These days it seems as if asking a stranger on the street simply if they have the time is a gross underutilization of the potential for information accumulation—why not have someone tell you who pitched the final game for the American League team in the 1948 World Series at a seemingly small increase in cost over checking their watch or phone for the time (a quick Google search tells me that the answer is right-hander Bob Lemon for Cleveland Indians).
In the last decade or so, the “improvements” made on devices that formerly held only one function have momentously increased the amount of information that we can literally bring to our fingertips. Nevertheless, the novelty and wonder attached to any statement about the “great ease of access” of information today is far less novel and wondrous to anyone who is conscious of the fact that they are living in the ostentatiously titled “Information Age.” However, when you take into account where we have come from regarding technology ownership and where we are now, the proportion of easily available information and the number of devices that can provide this information begs the question: how much is too much?
It has been recently published that what scientists are calling an ancient “computer” may have been used to set the dates for Olympic games as 776 BC. The device used an “intricate set of bronze gearwheels, dials, and inscriptions” to calculate the dates for the ceremonial Greek games. Today, some people may struggle to accept this device as any sort of “computer” considering you can’t even email with it, let alone check baseball stats. Now, these features are available on things like wristwatches and pens when traditionally wristwatches were made for telling time and pens were made for writing.
In 2007, it has been independently reported that 80% of Americans own personal computers and 82% of Americans own cell phones. While it is certainly not the case that computers and cell phones provide the same features, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to find a phone that just makes phone calls (and doesn’t allow text or instant messaging, music playback, or email and internet browsing), neither of those statistics take into account iPod and other MP3 player ownership, or iPhone ownership statistics (a device that combines computer/internet access, MP3 player capabilities, and telecommunication into one handheld device). If someone is sitting at home with a PC (“for work and school”), an iPhone (“for talking”), an iPod nano (“for exercise”), a wristwatch (“for telling time”), and a slide-rule (“for nostalgia”), what do they use to tell the time? To calculate taxes? To communicate with friends? To listen to music? To check the news?
So many devices can provide the same types of information that the utility of owning a personal, multi-media device could soon reach its saturation point. Sure, you can do a lot more than ask someone for the time if you want to know more, but for multi-device owners there may be an excess of informational opportunity when thinking about the necessity for all of their devices in economic terms. A device like the ancient Olympic-date-deciding-computer may seem like such an antiquated, highly useless object to someone today when you can easily perform the same function with a calendar and a calculator or an internet-capable computer. But when someone may own 4 or 5 different devices that could also do the job just as efficiently, what’s one more “portable” piece of rusted gears and metal to add to your collection to do just another job.
The multi-functional, multi-media, multi-everything devices that flood a buyer’s technological market may seem at first like a gift among gifts to anyone who thinks they appreciate an “insert number here”-for-1 bargain. However, what is really happening is that this diffusion of specific operations across many gadgets is not only perpetuating a cultural motion of conspicuous consumption and wanton necessity, but is also confusing and diluting the previously clearly drawn lines of technological specialization.
While it may make things easier for people to have access to all sorts of information and operations in one “convenient” place, people will tend to favor certain uses of a device over others which can lead to a general phasing out of certain functions, like replacing phone calls with text messages and instant messaging. Therefore, by increasingly relying on or favoring very particular operations in favor of others, when a plethora of alternatives are available, we may see negative effects on certain things (like phone calls or even email communication) that we may not be ready to give up.
As we reach the point when wristwatches are no longer relevant and have effectively been phased out of common usage, it’s interesting to see how formally dressed men are adapting, and whether watches will completely become a nostalgic, symbol of fashion or whether they’ll soon be replaced with fashionably-constructed iPhones or Bob Lemon baseball cards.
*Photograph courtesy of http://regmedia.co.uk/