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When more is not necessarily merrier

January 21, 2011

Living in a high-tech world, surrounded by gadgets of all sorts, raises a couple of vital questions: namely, how much technology do we need, and how high-tech must it be?

Take can openers. Obviously we need them - that's not an issue. The issue is what kind of can openers do we need?

For anyone without hand impairment, old-fashioned, hand-cranked openers seem ideal. They work perfectly, and they last forever. I've had the same one for 30 years, and while I may be showing signs of giving up the ghost, my can opener isn't.

So why do we need electric can openers? Mostly, we don't. They cost more; they use up more non-renewable resources, and they break. And weirdest of all, they don't open cans any better - or even much faster - than the hand-powered ones.

Or how about watches? Again, everyone needs one, and compared to the watches of 40 years ago, today's digitals are miraculous. They're cheap, rugged, never need repair and are almost perfectly accurate. In fact, a $30 Casio is more accurate than a $15,000 mechanical Rolex.

Still, how many functions does anyone need, or even want, on their watch? In addition to the regular time, they can tell world times, lap times, split times, delayed times and, for all I know, past lifetimes. They can also be calculators, barometers, thermometers and altimeters. But let's get real: Most of us are too intimidated by the instructions to ever set the watch for anything other than hour, minute, day and date.


The good new days?

This is not to say high tech can't be much more effective, convenient, cheaper and more ecological than the best the Good Old Days had to offer.

Cars? OK, today's all look the same - like shoeboxes with attitude. They've got no curves, no chrome, no class - especially compared to cars of the '50s and '60s. But they pollute less and are safer and more gas-efficient and dependable than the classy chassis of my heyday.

Then there are cameras. I love photography and for years used only an old manual film camera - a Nikon F. I gained a lot of skills and took a lot of pictures I really liked. But because it was film and I couldn't see the results till it was developed, I took far more shots that were horrible and had to pay for every one of them.

Beyond that, the camera, with its accompanying lenses, was so heavy it felt like I was shlepping a shotput with a lens. And try that when you're hiking for six hours in the mountains, carrying a 30-pound pack on top of it all.

A few years ago I went to India and decided to get a digital camera for the trip. I knew nothing about them, other than they were small and everyone had one.

After I got it, here's what else I learned about them: They're a lot easier and more versatile to use; they're also less prone to breaking down. And because there's no film, you can see your results immediately and only print what you want, thus saving you all sorts of money and waste.

To me, the ultimate measure of my digital camera (besides me not worrying about it giving me a hernia) is that since I got it, I haven't used my film camera. RIP.


The bibliophile file

All of this leads to my latest brush with high-tech gadgetry - electronic books.

My interest in them is obvious. I'm a compulsive reader, and books and magazines are my main source of information and amusement, perhaps to the point of mania. Books not only fill my bookshelves; they cover my tables, chairs, rugs, window sills, sinks - you name it.

So what could be a better solution to my obsession than one notebook-size device that can store thousands of books?

The first, and obvious, response is "nothing."

But upon reconsideration, the issue becomes more complicated.

On the plus side is its portability. What bibliophile could argue with having 5,000 books in your pocket, without so much as a bulge?

Then there're the choices. It's virtually infinite - you've got up to 700,000 selections available.

As for price? It's eminently reasonable. A quality electronic book costs less than $150; the downloadable books themselves run the gamut from about a sawbuck for the newest ones, while many others are free.

So did I decide to get one?


Ultimately, for all the e-book's great assets, there are none I need to take advantage of. Portability isn't an issue, since I won't soon be travelling anywhere where access to books is restricted. And as for choice? I can get any book I want through inter-library loan. Saving money? Not really, since between the used bookstores and the library, my budget doesn't take any major hits anyway.

Besides, the simple truth is that I'm not ready to give up my old-timey paper books.

Beyond the simple joy of handling paper pages - something I've done my whole life - I don't have to worry about how roughly I handle a book, if I drop it, or its battery reserves.

Plus, I like to write notes in the margins of my books with a pen - something I can't figure how it's done with its electronic offspring.

Then there's the issue of rereading. Truth is, as much as I read, I almost never reread a book. So why would I want a file of 500 books, 496 of which I'd never look at again?

And finally, there's one thing about the paper books the electronic ones can't ever match: They can be shared with others.

I don't know if downloaded electronic books can be further downloaded for someone else, but even so, it's got to be a lot more complicated than just saying, "Hey, check this out," and handing a dog-eared copy of a new favorite to a friend.

And that might be the key point: When I finish a book I really like, I look forward to giving it to someone else I know will really like it. To me, those old-fashioned paper books are a vital part of that old-fashioned person-to-person connection.

And that direct and personal connection with a fellow book nut, however temporary and tenuous, makes me feel like something no technology can - a human being.



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