I've been mulling an issue back and forth now for quite some time. The issue: how technology is a rampant waste of time and materials versus the benefits we derive as a culture from technological innovation.
Incidentally, I'm not referring to artificial hearts, new plastics, breast implants or better living through chemistry (take that last one as you want). I mean things like PDA's/Palms, iPods, cell-phones and the other assorted goodies that pervade my person on a semi-regular basis.
To wit: on my desk, at any given time, there is a cordless phone with a desktop charger/dock; a Palm LifeDrive PDA with a desktop charger/dock; an iPod Video 60GB with a desktop charger/dock; and a Nikon Coolpix S1 with a desktop charger/dock. Sensing a theme?
I think technology is a great thing; and if I haven't already expounded on this topic herein before, it seems to me that many PC innovations come as a result of companies striving to improve their machines in order to make games play better. Now before you take pause and think I'm losing my mind, consider the topic of graphics cards. Years ago, there were a few of these on the market; now there are over 500 choices, all of which feature different resolutions, amounts of built-in memory, and ancillary benefits (like the option of receiving television, capturing live video and/or piping output to a TV). As computers become more powerful, game designers (like those at Electronic Arts and Rockstar Games) pushed the envelope. The result -- PC's that become obsolete a lot quicker, but better software -- and not just games. Microsoft Office -- the ubiquitous collection of Word, Excel and a variety of other add-ons -- has continuously gotten more sophisticated (or more bloated, depending on your perspective) with each annual update.
If buying cars was like buying PC's, we'd each go through three cars a decade. Consider this: if the highways, roads and drive-through burger joints of this nation continually evolved like software did, we would be forced to upgrade/replace our cars as frequently as we do PC's.
The cycle goes like this: buy a PC and plug that bad boy into the wall and to other stuff -- printers, monitors, speakers, etc. That PC is, that first day (unless you bought a piece of shit like an E-Machine) is great.
However, next year, when Dell comes out with a new, faster version of the newest Pentium processor, game manufacturers will take note and tweak their games (both current ones and those in production) to run better on that new processor. So you'll be able to steal more cars or shoot more civilians in "Grand Theft Auto: Dover, Delaware" with even more realistic blood and gore. And once Dell revamps that brand-spankin' new Pentium 4 and makes it even faster, game manufacturers will follow suit and improve their output to run even better on that new processor. Re-read the prior sentence and take note that faster and better are generally regarded as synonymous in the world of PC's.
As these PC innovations continue to take hold, everyone else -- ie non-game-manufacturers -- follow suit. Whether these innovations are actual improvements -- being able to do more simultaneously, like work on a term paper, do research online and chat instantly with a friend in Venezuela -- or mere 'upgrades' -- being able to hear your friend as you chat live with him/her instead of simply talking to him/her on the telephone -- is subjective. But the short and long is that as computers become faster, more powerful and more advanced, software appears to take advantage of the increased capacity and/or horsepower.
Why is this a problem? It isn't, if you can afford to replace your PC every six months. But the truth is that the innovations are happening so quickly and so uniformly that by the time you actually decide to upgrade, whatever you've purchased is not only going to be obsolete within six months, it will be a tenth of the price and will be replaced by something that is more efficient and more capable of doing whatever it is you hoped to accomplish with that little conglomeration of metal, glass and/or plastic.
So on my desk, I see a 5.8 gigahertz cordless phone, which has already become semi-obsolete by new models which use less energy and charge faster; a Palm that is going to be replaced within six months by a newer model that has three times the capacity and very few, if any, bugs. The iPod, which is almost brand new, will be replaced in Apple's lineup with a device that uses much less energy, sounds better, and has increased capacity. My cellphone will be useless unless it runs on the newest version of a wireless interactive protocol known as Bluetooth; and since the cellphone that replaces mine in Motorola's lineup will get better reception and have fewer emissions, that should go in the trash as well.
The Nikon, while a nice product, is a five-megapixel camera; for the same money, I can now purchase the same model with more features and a better battery as an eight-megapixel version, which provides roughly 30% better resolution. And I haven't even mentioned the Logitech webcam that is perched stealthily above my monitor.
Essentially, where this all brings us is a choice: are we to run this unwinnable, eternal race to have the newest, most capable gadgets, toys and life-acoutrement available, or are we going to take an honest, realistic approach to all these myriad devices and decide what we need versus what we want? In years past, I'd scoop up goodies as they hit the market, tossing aside the old crap without giving same much of a thought, never considering that today's hot new item and the object of my techno-lust will be on the scrap-heap along with the device I'm tossing aside this minute. But now I'm more inclined to hold off and decide what is necessary against what is simply luxury. The iPod isn't a luxury per se, but given the amount of time I spend on subways, trains and my feet in and around the City, it's a worthwhile purchase. I use my Palm to keep my schedule and information handy: the fact that I can take pages of data (in Word and Excel format) with me anywhere is, if not necessary, at the least very useful.
I could toss the Nikon and get a new one: they now have weather-resistant cameras so you can actually photograph up to 20 feet below the water. Do I really need that capability? Not really. Do I need to be able to have a phone that can take pictures, send text messages, or calculate a tip if I'm unable to do so? Not particularly.
I think it comes down to the question of need vs. want, as many things in our daily lives evolve from what we think we need to those things we could really use and/or enjoy. Necessity doesn't merely equate to sunshine, food, water and love, either: but it seems that the more that we want, the less we truly need, and as more is out there to captivate our attention and our gadget-lust, the less we intrinsically need to make us happy. The more computers and technology attempt to make our lives better and to enable us to communicate more efficiently, the more I value seeing someone's eyes when I speak with him/her, and the more avenues of electronic communication available to me, the less connected I feel.
I don't decry technology -- you can be sure I'll still lust after the next Palm and the next version of the Motorola Razr that hit the market -- but inasmuch as these things add something to our lives, I like to remind myself that our lives our a balance of things, and when these things add something, they also tend to take something away.
At the very least, something to think about the next time you're waiting for your cell-phone to charge or you're on hold with Dell technical support.