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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Are We Addicted to Technology?

By: Alex Lekas
You know him; you may even be him. Deftly wrist-driving an SUV in rush hour, cell phone cradled between ear and shoulder while simultaneously pecking his PDA as the GPS system maps out the quickest route to the next stop. Reveling in the orgy of technology that allowed him to focus on everything but staying between the white lines, I doubt he noticed me being forced onto the shoulder of the road. Gadgets are cool, but at 70 miles an hour, they lose some appeal.

Technology has increased productivity and efficiency at home and work, and it has reduced costs, particularly for business. It has also spawned digital junkies who can’t go longer than 15 minutes without a tech fix, even on vacation. Seriously, if the company can’t function for a week without you or if you can’t function without it, lie down quietly; the men in the white coats will be there shortly. (continued...)

One of the unwritten laws of technology appears to be that the function that an item was originally designed to perform may well be the last thing it actually does. Take the cell phone, for instance. Ever try to find one that only accepts incoming calls and lets you dial out?

Cell phones handle e-mail, send text messages, browse the web, take pictures, let you play games, and keep appointment calendars. Mine even has a world time feature, in case I need to know that 3 pm in North Carolina is midnight in Tashkent. In case you’re wondering, Tashkent is in Uzbekistan, and a Google search through the phone even provides a city guide and a list of hotels should I ever decide to go there.

Adding more features is a uniquely American mindset that imagines if one (fill in the blank) is good, then two or three will be spectacular. That’s true if you want more than one. If you don’t, you’re out of luck. Eventually, it will cost you more to have fewer features because what is new today becomes standard tomorrow.

The push for more has its downside. Computer programs and applications are designed to let as many people as possible collaborate across a network of as many other programs and applications as possible. A worthy goal, but as interoperability increases, so does the possibility of a security breach because the vulnerabilities of each single system are multiplied. It’s like medicine – each drug has a specific purpose, but when you mix several of them, it is likely that some may not work or play well with others.

So how much technology is too much? Consider a Food Lion in Mooresville, N.C. where customers use handheld scanners, kiosks suggest recipes to compliment the bottle of wine in a shopper’s basket, and sales fliers and price tags may go the way of the corner butcher. Grocers and other merchants see technology as a means of fostering a better shopping experience. Your question is: do you want a ‘shopping experience’, or to just want to buy a few things?

From a business to customer standpoint, technology makes shopping more convenient since people value nothing more than their time. That’s why online sales keep increasing. The potential downside is that in order to make ‘purchasing events’ smoother, merchants first want to gain as much personal information about their customers as possible.

That already happens in a low-level way and has for some time. The last time you bought electronics or clothing, were you asked for your zip code? Phone number? Address perhaps? In a statistical sense, that information is more demographic than personal. Gradually, information gathering is getting more detailed, to include brand preferences and buying habits. That’s how the grocery store “knows” to suggest the right wine to compliment your next dinner party. Exactly where convenience crosses into intrusion is a determination individual businesses must make for themselves.

In the office, technology streamlines tasks and processes, and it makes workers more productive. It also makes some of them obsolete. In short, technology has benefits if you’re clear about what the benefits are. Like medicine, technology can’t help you if you don’t use it right. And, it won’t keep your SUV moving in a straight line if your hands aren’t on the wheel.

Alex Lekas is the VP/Corporate Commmunications for AIT, Inc. (http://ait.com), web host to nearly 200,000 business domains in more than 100 countries.