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A decade of digital explosion

A decade of digital explosion
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First Published: Sun, Dec 27 2009. 10 12 PM IST

 Gadget culture: Customers look at laptops at an Apple store in New York. Gadgets such as laptops and smart phones along with websites such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed people to always stay c
Gadget culture: Customers look at laptops at an Apple store in New York. Gadgets such as laptops and smart phones along with websites such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed people to always stay c
Updated: Sun, Dec 27 2009. 10 12 PM IST
You turn down the satellite radio station blaring in your hybrid Prius, in time to hear the voice-navigation system command a right turn into the parking lot of the Apple store, which you had Google-mapped in hope of buying an iPod.
Gadget culture: Customers look at laptops at an Apple store in New York. Gadgets such as laptops and smart phones along with websites such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed people to always stay connected. Stephen Hilger / Bloomberg
Suddenly your BlackBerry buzzes that your daughter finally friended you on Facebook. She reminds you to TiVo “American Idol” and “Survivor” for the New Year. She also relays the message that the Botox doctor you found on Craigslist can fit you in on Friday, so you’ll be looking good for the Monday job interview arranged through Monster.com.
Whew. A day—or rather a minute—filled with buzzwords that didn’t exist in the US 10 years ago.
While 9/11 and other major events of the decade shaped the world stage, technology we now take for granted incrementally transformed the lives of many. Names and functions including Wikipedia, pirated music and ubiquitous laptops, DVDs and camera phones quickly embedded themselves in a fast-paced decade of cultural change.
“It’s interesting that we can’t imagine life without them now,” says David Broadway, a prominent plastic surgeon in Lone Tree, Colorado. “They became part of our world so quickly, we can’t remember what we did before.”
No doubt many of his patients concur—especially those who, since 2002, have battled the subtle creases of age with botulinum toxin.
Broadway remembers well when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Botox to smooth over frown lines—and how clients, nearly all women, almost immediately lined up for treatment.
The rapid absorption of new technology may well prove one of the major themes of the decade when social historians look back in wonder.
The number of people consistently online in North America sped from 108 million in 2000 to 253 million this year. The decade saw the promise of instant, all-encompassing information finally fulfilled: Google started linking ads to searches and powered its way into all corners of life; “Wikipedia” became a verb; and sites such as Craigslist, Monster, Facebook and LinkedIn blurred socializing with utility.
For many white-collar employees, and an entire generation of teens, constant “connection” became the status quo. When was the last time you were at a meeting when someone wasn’t thumbing a BlackBerry or iPhone to “talk” to others, asks University of Denver gaming development professor Scott Leutenegger.
With that great power, the great burden of connectivity is inseparable, argues Denver job-site maven Andrew Hudson. “Technology is always marketed as a way to make our lives easier, but the expectation becomes that people can do more because they can do it faster,” says Hudson, a publicist and proprietor of andrewhudsonsjoblist.com. “That doesn’t make our lives less complicated.”
Yes, an employee can check her work email while sitting in a coffee shop at 2pm, but she’s also now expected to respond to a boss’ text at 10pm.
Away from the job, though, the technological advances have created connections that reinforce relationships with far-flung relatives, keep families up to date and provide previously unimagined peace of mind for parents.
Sure, Michael Bardi uses a global positioning system—the US government opened precise satellite signals for this use in 2000—to maximize productivity on his routes as a process server in Colorado Springs.
But he can also pick up his phone and run an application that shows him the exact coordinates of his children, whom he has equipped with cellphones at ever younger ages. At 42, Bardi has embraced every new thing he figures will keep him closer to family and friends—text-messaging, Facebook, email, camera phones.
“We looked into technology, how it would help and benefit us as opposed to how it would hinder us,” he says.
That includes family-friendly entertainment such as geocaching, a sort of GPS-powered treasure hunt that runs against the idea of computer games as solitary pursuits in a dark room.
The games people play shot off in many directions during the decade, from the introduction of Xbox in 2001 to the 2005 launch of Wii, and crossed generational lines. Gaming communities did battle everywhere from online to retirement homes, where Wii offered low-impact exercise that put shuffleboard to shame.
Soon after that explosion of possibility came reflective citizens worried their virtual connections might overwhelm reality. Denver entrepreneur Ted Pinkowitz has a job exploiting technology to create closer community ties, but he also urges his family to avoid electronic overload.
Pinkowitz co-founded Neighborhood Link, a free service creating Web pages for neighborhood associations and community organizations.
Thirty-five to 40 neighborhoods a week now contact the company from around the nation, and city residents have come to expect accurate, useful civic links online, he says.
Yet Pinkowitz strives to wall off his young children from computers and other technology. He’s keeping his cellphone decidedly stupid for now. “I really believe that there’s information overload, and that impinges on wisdom and perspective.”
Our diversions have become more accessible than ever—a tidal shift that began with the rise of the Napster free file-sharing model at the turn of the decade, and morphed into the combination of free and paid-for online music available today.
The introduction of the iPod in 2001 and the array of mp3 players in its wake set the stage for a new way of consuming music—and later, video—without interference from any media gatekeeper, observes Heather Browne, whose Colorado Springs-based FuelFriendsblog.com has attracted music fans over the last four years. Technology has driven us away from the album concept to become a “song-based culture”, she notes, as we download only what we want, virtually as soon as we realize we want it.
The decade also launched a host of innovations that may not be fulfilled until late in the coming decade, but whose possibilities seem unlimited.
With the 2003 completion of the Human Genome Project, which aimed to identify every gene in human DNA, scientists began the daunting task of trying to sort the deluge of information.
Building computer programs to process all this knowledge is part of what Lawrence Hunter does as director of the Computational Bioscience Program at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine.
From his vantage point, it’s hard to overstate what the decade has meant to an area of science that holds such abundant promise. “It’s an inflection point, the moment we knew that the big change was really going to happen—a genome-scale understanding of life,” Hunter says. “That’s going to affect medicine, the way we try to deal with environmental problems—it’s going to affect everything about life.”
Already, human genome data have contributed to a new understanding of how genetic variability affects drug dosing. FDA already tells doctors to consider genetic factors when calculating dosage for blood thinners. Now it’s just a matter of time before the ramifications of the project extend even further into biomedicine and countless other areas.
“We've turned the corner,” Hunter says. “We’re not there yet. But we can see it.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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First Published: Sun, Dec 27 2009. 10 12 PM IST