The problem with technology is that it’s easy to overuse. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to give up my smart-phone; in fact, Lisa and I recently switched to smart phone plans in the U.S.  even though we’re not back there that much. Just for the few weeks we’re in the States, it’s worth having. But the smart phone is maybe the perfect example of technology overwhelming us. I see people sitting together at lunch, both of them engrossed in their phones rather than conversation with each other. I have friends and colleagues who, when you’re in mid-sentence to them, stop to reply to a text (which they stopped and read while you were talking). Kids texting each other across the school courtyard rather than actually sitting, looking into each other’s eyes, and talking. This is meshuggah.
But I’ve found a couple of cool technologies that seem to be perfect in that they’re self-limiting; they do exactly what you want them to do, make life cooler, but don’t become the camel in the tent, overwhelming your life.
First, the one that basically everybody should have: a digital picture frame. You can get one at Best Buy (or Bed, Bath, and Beyond for that matter); they run from $30 to $150, depending on size and features (some newer ones have WiFi). It’s not that the addictive quality of pictures is new – we’ve all spent time flipping through an album and reliving people and memories that are precious to us. But how often do you take the time to pull out a photo album, sit down with it, and take a walk down memory lane? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But the digital picture frame grabs at you every time you walk past, or even just glance up in its direction. I must have spent 15-20 minutes last night, watching the one in the living room. Seeing the faces of family and friends – some present, some gone now, was an irreplaceable joy. There’s old Dean C. in his fishing camo; the family on the boat in the Galapagos Islands; Strawberry family members enjoying dinner at Kamp Koala.
I got my parents one and they are tickled to death with it. There may be a better gift for grandparents, but I don’t know what it would be. But it’s not just for grandparents; if you have memories in pictures (and who doesn’t?), this is a great investment that ensures you get full value for them.
Two most important features: (1) good resolution (at least 640 x 480, and preferably larger), and (2) ability to read the standard memory cards (essentially SD) and a USB input. After that, it’s mostly bells and whistles.
One important usage note: when you’re loading up your SD card with photos, do a lot of culling. Those pictures are going to be looping around all the time – be selective about what’s on infinite loop in your den.
Second: the Sonos Internet music system. This probably qualifies as “toy”, but, as a friend put it: “‘Toy’ is relative. I spend money on sailboats and get huge value for that. Most people wouldn’t. So it’s a ‘toy’. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to me.”
Basically, Sonos is a hardware/software package that allows you to stream digital music wirelessly around your house. The “bridge” unit plugs into your WiFi router, then you put the “players” anywhere around the house you wish. But the magic comes from the software. There’s a controller app you can download for Windows, Mac, iPhone/iPad, or Android (do not buy their hardware controller). You fire it up and direct music to the various devices. And yes, you can direct different music to different devices (Broadway in the kitchen, blues in the den).
On top of that, the software goes out and finds a few thousand Internet radio stations; you can stream any of them over the system. Or you can stream services such as Spotify, Rhapsody, and Pandora. Or your own music database. It even supports network-attached storage (NAS) devices – imagine a terabyte or two of your favorite tunes, all available to any room in your house, controlled from your smart-phone (see, I really do like technology).
Oddly, the big gift to me from this has been the discovery of all kinds of new music via the Internet radio. “Dakar Musique? Yeah, ship it.” I visualize some guy sitting in a little studio in Dakar, streaming tunes to the world, them making their way over the Interwebs, into my Sonos system and thus into my ears. Hello world! A couple of taps on my iPad, and I’m bathed in the familiar sounds of Radio Bluegrass.
Here’s what Sonos does for me: it makes me listen to more music and more different kinds of music. It’s not cheap, but given the value I place on music in my life, it’s good value.
And it doesn’t interfere with my having meaningful human interaction.
P.S. This isn’t directly related to Sonos, but “coherent”, if you will: I’m writing this post on my Mac while sitting in the (wonderful) Jabberwocky coffee shop in Douglas. A really cool tune came on the music system, but I had no idea of what it was. Fortunately, the owner (who’s a pretty hip guy) was standing nearby talking to the members of a band that’s playing a private gig here tonight. I turned to them and said, “What’s that on the speaker?” Immediately they said “Oh – that’s Fun Loving Criminals – they’re brilliant.” In the old days, I probably couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have done anything with that. Now, when I get home, I’m going to fire up Spotify via the Sonos system. A few taps and I’ll be investigating a new band. That’s pretty damn cool.
 We went with Straight Talk‘s $45/month all-you-can-eat voice/text/data plan ($497 if you buy a year). I couldn’t be happier and I giggle every time I drive past a Verizon store.