How much is too much? When it comes to technological devices, I find myself asking that question more and more.
Our society is filled with iPods, Treos, Bluetooth devices, cellphones, laptops, satellite radios, global tracking devices, TiVos, flat-screen TVs, universal remotes, Game Boys, PlayStations, Xboxes, Sidekicks – the list goes on and on.
Now, I am no Luddite. I've always been an early adopter of technology. I had a cellphone in my car in 1990. I paid almost $500 for a 14.4-baud modem in 1993 and marveled at how much faster it made my Internet connection. I created the first newspaper site on the Internet in Canada in 1994. I have two Apple Newtons in my attic, in almost pristine condition. In 2001, I even purchased an "Audrey," a machine designed to be the first "kitchen computer" or Web-appliance. These days, it's keeping the Newtons company upstairs.
It's not that I don't appreciate the occasional new device. But as time passes, I find my appetite for new technology fading. Increasingly, if it doesn't serve a useful purpose in my life, I'm not interested.
For instance, while I've used an iPod, I don't own one. When I want to listen to music, I play a CD. (I even have a machine that plays – gasp – my old records made of vinyl.) Or I listen to this thing called the radio, which seems to offer a wide variety of all kinds of music.
But for me, the device that falls into the "too much" category is the BlackBerry, "a wireless e-mail solution for mobile professionals." About 5.5 million of these machines have been sold, according to Research in Motion, the BlackBerry's manufacturer. Many of my friends now have one – and swear their world would fall apart if they could no longer use one.
A Sprint television ad for BlackBerry actually makes fun of how this small machine can take over your life. One man, talking about his BlackBerry's new GPS tracking feature, says he would be lost without it. A friend takes the device from him to look at it, and suddenly the owner acts lost, not recognizing his surroundings. He is not restored to normal until his BlackBerry is returned.
A good friend of mine, Sue Gardner, also a journalist, uses a BlackBerry like I use a fork. The machine has become an indispensable part of her life, made necessary by a job that requires her to be in constant contact with her office. As head of the CBC's news website in Canada (CBC.ca), she no longer views her BlackBerry as simply a business tool, it has become – in some Star Trek Borg-like fashion – an extension of her arm. Sue has been assimilated. And she knows it.
"I keep it on a very short leash," she told me over the telephone from Toronto last weekend. "I bought it in 2000, and since 2000, it has never been more than four feet from me."
She even knows that it may be more of a security blanket than a truly necessary tool.
"For instance, when Saddam Hussein was captured very early in the morning on a weekend, I was home in bed," she said. "There was nothing I could do about that – there were already people in place to take care of it. The work gets done, I don't really need to know. So there really is no rational explanation for my BlackBerry. But I love it."
Good-natured kidding aside, I believe the dividing line between just enough and too much ultimately has to be a utilitarian one.
Sure, sometimes you can buy something because it's cool or fun. Or like my friend Sue, because it offers some intangible quality that you relish. But even people who purchase iPods do so because it makes the act of listening to music easier.
For me, my cellphone is my Borg device because it keeps me connected to my family, my kids' school, my wife's office, etc. But I'm not interested in owning a Bluetooth earpiece for the simple luxury of hands-free talking. I just don't need it.
And that measuring stick should apply to every technology purchase you make: Do you really need this?
For example, if you are buying a new computer this Christmas, think about what you really need it to do. Far too many people who are interested only in e-mail and Internet surfing buy a machine that could power the space program. Simply put, they spend way too much money.
Be smart. Find out how a new gadget will improve your life before buying it. Or just let it be. Certainly by letting technology's advance pass you by, you won't worry about having too much of it.