Archive for Thursday, May 30, 2002

Technological rat race

We all lose in the information age

May 30, 2002

In an attempt to increase his versatility, do-everything Explorer employee Eric Gruber purchased a pawnshop Palm Pilot last weekend. I expect it to double his productivity once he quits playing with it and applies it to serious purpose.

He already demonstrated the device's absolute utility after I made a chance remark about Jerry Seinfeld and Bizarro world. "That's episode such and such. It first aired on Oct. 3, 1996."

I was thrown off guard by the response made while I was looking the other direction. I didn't realize we had a Seinfeld expert worthy of a regular seat on the Comedy Channel's "Beat the Geeks" quiz show.

To his credit, Eric fessed up. He gained his near instant expertise via the Palm Pilot. It seemed he had downloaded a Seinfeld data base into the device the night before.

It was part of a wasted evening that Eric said caused a rift in his relationship. His girlfriend claims he is spending too much time with his "toy." He insists it's a tool, despite the obvious evidence to the contrary.

Eric's chief complaint is locating new models in department stores for just a few dollars more than he spent on his pawnshop bargain.

It's a lesson in electronic economics I learned in my 20s. As soon as I or one of my friends purchased a state-of-the-art stereo component, manufacturers would release something better. If you were lucky, the new gadget was only flashier or more powerful than your recent purchase. If you were more unfortunate, the technological leap made your shinny new eight-track tape deck completely obsolete. I came to believe I was some kind of marketing benchmark. Once I bought a component, it was time for the industry to move on.

Staying ahead in the information technology race is even more hopeless. It's like purchasing diamonds. The value drops by 80 percent when you sign the check.

Still, those clever little hand-held devices have a lot to recommend them. I have a friend who works for a state-funded agency that was considering purchasing laptops for five to six employees who spend a great deal of time on the road. The friend suggested the agency purchase a hand-held device instead. Like laptops, they could be used for word processing e-mails and Internet connections at 10 to 20 percent of the cost, my friend said.

The agency's purchasing agent agreed but said the agency had to get laptops. The state wouldn't approve any purchase for less than $2000, my friend was told.

The story suggests the state is less well-equipped to deal with the constant information technology onslaught than individuals.

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