Keeping in mind daily wonders of high technology

Digital: Sure, change and devices can be annoying. But here's a list of great advantages.

January 01, 2004|By Phillip Robinson | Phillip Robinson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Viruses, crashes, bugs, support that doesn't: Technology can be a pain.

But it can be a pleasure. Tech lets us do some things that were difficult or even impossible before. The words "free," "instant" and "worldwide" come up a lot.

To end 2003 and start 2004, here's my list of some of the best things mere humans can get from digital technology.

1. Instant free worldwide communication. Family members teach school in Saudi Arabia. Just a few years ago, calling to the States was hideously expensive. Improved phone systems have made the calls sort of affordable. Even better, e-mail has made communications just about free. And Instant Messaging makes them free and immediate.

2. Cheap personal phones. A phone used to be a place thing. Now it's a person thing. And that means I can call to say I'm late without having to stop at some dark, godforsaken place to try to use a possibly broken pay phone. It means my daughter can have a little more freedom to wander because I know she can immediately call me or 911 if she's in trouble. It means I don't have to wait by the phone for an important call - because the phone waits by me. And these phones aren't just for the rich and famous. Cheap, prepaid phones sit right there at my corner convenience store, alongside chips, magazines and beer.

3. Instant free photos. Digital cameras aren't cheap. They still cost several times as much as comparable film cameras - say $500 instead of $200 for a flexible, powerful model. But that $500 camera gives you pictures of about the same quality as the film camera, instead of the "well, they aren't very good, but they are immediate, and you can mess with them in the computer" pictures of 1990s digital cameras.

4. Free photo portability and protection. This is a tech extra that many people don't yet take advantage of, but with even an average-size hard drive you can keep thousands of personal photos with you all of the time.

5. Worldwide free market. You can now buy and sell things to people all over the world, people you never would have had contact with any other way. The perfect example: My dad wanted to buy my mom a book about a special kind of embroidery, something from our family heritage. There weren't any books on this subject in local stores or libraries, or even in the well-known online bookstores. But Alibris.com, a used-book market online, showed that there was one, single copy for sale in the entire world, by someone in Australia. The distance didn't matter. Soon that book was headed for the United States, at a total cost of about $30 plus maybe an hour on the Internet.

6. Worldwide clubs. I call them clubs just because I need a single word that refers to all the ways people can group around a common interest. Just as you can buy and sell with strangers anywhere (well, of those online - which is common in some countries but still extremely uncommon in some, such as in Africa), you can communicate with those people.

Have some unusual interest, the kind that means you never can really share with friends, family, neighbors? Don't worry, you're not alone because somewhere in the world there are others with the same interest or need. Sometimes this is for fun - when sharing a hobby - sometimes for tragedy - when coming together over an illness - but it's always a connection that wasn't really possible before technology. (Sure, you could have pen pals, but how would you find those with the same interest, and how much closer are you now with instant communications and shared-comment bulletin-boards?)

7. Worldwide, free news. I was a newspaper boy years ago and so read the local paper daily. Now I read papers from all over the world every day, at no cost, and as a bonus I don't rub the ink off on my hands. I also read news magazines and science magazines and personal newsletters from academics and amateurs.

8. Portable, searchable files. If you've ever clipped anything - ads, pictures, articles, recipes, song lyrics, obituaries - then your computer hard drive can be a gold mine. The kind that you stuff gold into, that is. I used to clip newspapers and magazines for everything from personal travel ideas to business notes. And I had the hardest time finding the right clipping when I needed it, if I remembered I had it.

With my hard drive, I read and clip articles online, stuff them into folders, and then use the computer's search commands to dig them up. This is so superior that I try to avoid reading paper news because I'll just want to tear out articles that I'll never be able to find later. Or if I do clip the paper news, I bring the clippings home, look them up in the online version of the publication, save and computer-file that, and then recycle the paper version.

There are more ways to get "free" and "instant" out of your technology (free after you've paid for the computer and an Internet hookup, that is), but these top my list.

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