Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Electronic Red Pen

My nephew called me after school the other day. He had written an essay for his eighth grade English class and it was due the following day. He wanted me to review it and make suggestions for improvement before he turned it in. Unfortunately for us, we live several hours apart and time was too short to get together in person.

Instead, we used e-mail and the collaborative features in Microsoft Word to polish his essay before he turned it in to his teacher. The Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word allows a reviewer to make changes and comments to a draft document and to have those changes be visible just as if the reviewer had marked up the draft document with a red pen.

My nephew was able to look at my comments and at the changes I recommended--my electronic mark up. He accepted some of my recommendations, saved a final draft, and printed a clean copy to turn in to his teacher.

Maybe I can't always sit around the kitchen table helping my nephew with his homework, but at least the collaborative technologies of today help me to be there when he asks for my help. Even at the last minute.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Information Overload

In 1962, urban planner Richard Meier speculated that the amount of information bombarding modern city dwellers would lead to "problems of widespread saturation in communications flow...within the next half century." His phrase information overload succinctly expresses the concept.

Information comes at us in so many different ways these days. Instead of three broadcast televisions networks there are now hundreds of channels available through cable and satellite providers--not to mention the viewing choices available via the internet. Not only is there voice mail but e-mail, text messaging, and instant messaging too. And if you have several social networking accounts with such sites as MySpace, LinkedIn, or Second Life, you have even more ways for someone to "reach out and touch" you 24/7.

One of my favorite columnists, Paul McFedries, writes about the many aspects of information fatigue syndrome (IFS) in his article Tired vs. Wired. (IEEE Spectrum, August 2007). He describes IFS as "the weariness and stress that result from having to deal with excessive amounts of information." Its many forms range from e-mail fatigue to PIN-code overload.

But McFedries notes that not all humans succumb to fatigue. Indeed informavores crave data and positively thrive on info glut. These infohoarders are the digital pack rats of our age. For them, terabyte hard drives are a necessity.

Barely forty-six years after Meier made his prediction many of us have yet to come to terms with information overload. For myself, I plan to make liberal use of the delete key to preserve my hard drive space as well as my sanity. But first I need a nap.

Welcome to A Technical Skeptic

As an engineer by training and a veteran of high-tech industries from biotechnology to internet commerce, I've seen a lot of technology come and go. As anyone who has not been living in a cave for the last decade can attest, technology change has become so rapid that we humans often struggle to keep up. Witness the revolution in telephone technology; the evolution from cassettes and VHS to CDs and DVDs; the move to digital television; and the ubiquity of the internet.

My goal with A Technical Skeptic is to talk about various bits of technology, including Web 2.0, from a human perspective. I want to point out the advantages as well as the potential pitfalls. I see first hand how much technology can intimidate and frustrate even the brightest among us. This bugs me. So join me as I share my views on technology and the human beings who create and use it.