As the holiday shopping frenzy reaches its annual climax, buyers are agonizing over the latest high-tech trinkets on the market. iPod nano? Treo 650? Xbox 360? To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, why are people getting these wonderful toys?
As our society becomes ever more information-centric and "connected," Americans are seeing more of a need for constant access and shiny new gadgets to connect with.
A recent poll found as many as four in ten Americans consider their high-speed Internet connections "essential" to their daily lives, and two in ten felt the same way about their DVD and CD players, as well as digital cable subscriptions.
Fully half of the respondents said they couldn't live without Internet access, as they depended on it for news, information, and simple communication.
Another poll conducted by DoubleClick found that 55 percent of the respondents look at their work e-mail at home, and 54 percent did so on the weekends. The survey indicated that the majority of the respondents had multiple e-mail addresses, and many used one address primarily for online shopping.
Even granting that polls can say whatever the pollsters want them to, the simple truth is that the world is becoming more wired, and Americans are placing more and more importance on high-tech gear for both everyday needs and as symbols of success and status.
Not only that, the desire for high-end gadgets cuts across economic and gender lines. Men favor high-end consumer goods far more than women do, and those with annual incomes of $50,000 and higher were generally more disposed to spend their earnings on gadgets and appliances.
A fear of many Web analysts and observers is that today's teenagers, who have never known a world without the Web, will become fixated on instant communication for all their socializing. Teens and young adults are increasingly turning to real-time communication tools such as blogging, podcasting, and instant messaging over e-mail.
Not only that, many businesses are turning to commercial instant messaging clients and editable online workspaces such as "wikis" for instant communication and productivity, all in the name of getting things done faster.
In reality, there may not be much to fear from the high-tech wave. It was barely a generation ago that parents complained their kids didn't read or write. Now they spend all their time tapping away at the keyboard.
Despite the ongoing concerns of identity theft, viruses, spam, and fraud, most people successfully use the Web to meet their wants and needs.
The danger may come from simply having too much of a good thing. As useful and enjoyable as our new technologies are, humans still need time to "unplug," and to interact face-to-face, relax, and minimize the stresses of modern life.
Overly concerned parents and legislators have tried to attack video games as bad influences on today's youth, promoting violence and lenient attitudes towards sex and drugs.
However, there has been no definitive correlation between video games and behaviors in teens, and a federal judge in California recently blocked enforcement of a ban on selling violent video games to minors due to potential violations of the First Amendment.
Rather than banning technology, hiding from it, or attempting to cripple it (as in the case of Sony and its DRM woes), a better solution might simply be to emphasize the need for more basic communication between people, and to set aside times when connectivity isn't necessary or desired.
The National Association of Theater Owners recently appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to consider banning cellphone transmissions in movie theaters, as an effort to entice disgruntled movie fans who currently prefer DVD's and cable over the theater experience.
Ultimately, the new connectivity can be both help and burden to those who use it. Just as with any habit, too little can leave you starved of the essentials, and too much can be an overdose. Balance your Web surfing and game playing with some "offline" activities, like exercise, reading, volunteering, and you'll surely lead a fuller and healthier life.