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Data Debris and the Time of Our Lives

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Monday, December 02, 2013

An elderly friend I'll call Jeff perfectly summed up the stress of digital living. He'd read an article on the race by cyber-merchants to get online purchases into consumers' hands within an hour of their pushing the "place your order" button. One such service, eBay Now, has its own app enabling shoppers to follow the delivery people as they bike or drive to their address.

"More miscellaneous information than you need" is how Jeff described the tracking feature, while conceding, "This country is good at delivering stuff."

Jeff is not a creature of the digital age. He writes on a computer and sends email, but that's it. He is content to read today's news in tomorrow's newspaper. The one kind of information he wants right away is the weather, which he gets on the radio. Though he misses out on some of the wonderful digital conveniences, he also avoids the enormous time-wasters marketed in the name of expedience.

I turn on my television, and up comes the message, "Do not unplug your Apple TV while updating." I urge Jeff to be patient, to which he chimes in, "You never had to do that with radio."

To me, managing gadgets, apps and their updates is worth the hassle. The technology lets me tightly regulate my media consumption for quality and minimal commercial interruptions. But Jeff is right. There is a price to pay for all this "control," and the various subscription fees are the least of it.

Go back to the e-commerce sites offering super-fast delivery. Amazon.com was a pioneer in this effort, building 40 huge warehouses in the United States. These "fulfillment centers" store merchandise near millions of customers, enabling Amazon to provide same-day delivery on many items. EBay is trying to go Amazon one better with same-hour delivery.

When all goes well, instant delivery may seem a welcome amenity. But all doesn't always go well. Moving physical things to physical customers is not the same as taking orders in cyberspace and beaming them to warehouses.

In the corporeal world, tornadoes happen. Traffic happens. The "valet" (eBay Now's name for the delivery guy) gets lost. Tires go flat. Or a surge in demand causes a valet shortage. For many customers, a two-hour or six-hour wait poses no more hardship than the one-hour kind. But suppose you've ordered a new ink cartridge because your printer at work just ran out. In olden times, you'd have stored a replacement in the closet. With promises of immediate delivery, you stopped doing that.

Suppose you shopped online for Christmas presents two days before, assuming rapid delivery. You never imagined that Mother Nature would throw a wrench in the computerized distribution system by staging a blizzard outside Chicago, but she does.

And so, added to the to-do list of writing cards, answering invites and finding the cookie recipe is tracking the whereabouts of something you could have bought a month ago. What was supposed to be a great convenience simply adds more data debris to the stressful pile clogging your head.

What we see as timesaving technology is often just time speed-up. If you had ordered that sweater three weeks ago, chances are you wouldn't give a hoot what detained the delivery truck at that very moment. And if it came in the wrong size, big deal. You'd return it for the right size.

Jeff, as you might imagine, shops at downtown stores. He does that undistracted by miscellaneous information dinging at him from a cellphone, which he doesn't have.

"We have to enjoy life," as Jeff philosophizes. "We can't live on the Penn Central timetable."

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com

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