Faster, Smaller, Better
By A.D. Freudenheim

13 January 2002

My various mailboxes - e-mail and snail mail - fill regularly with news and information about the latest gadgets: articles appear about new-and-improved versions of mobile telephones that incorporate Palm Pilots or similar devices; catalogs arrive, to tempt me with the latest versions of machines like the Compaq iPaq or the Sony Clié; rumors swirl about Apple introducing its own PDA, allegedly called the "iWalk"; and there are even watches coming to market that will store and display your data, presumably so that users don't have to whip out their ultra-thin handhelds to look up a phone number. These tools keep getting smaller and smaller, and faster and faster, in an effort to improve the quality and efficiency of our lives.

It is interesting that, while all of these PDAs have differences between them, their similarities are greater than their distinguishing features, and one of the biggest is the lack of a built-in keyboard. On most PDAs, data input takes place by scribbling on the display screen, or by tapping virtual keys. A real keyboard seems to have been deemed unnecessary; in a world of smaller and faster, extended thoughts are a luxury few can afford.

What strikes me as ironic is that starting with its earliest form - the typewriter - the keyboard was an incredible invention because it allowed people to "write" much faster and more legibly than could be done by hand using a pen and paper. (Try writing sixty words per minute for ten minutes straight, using a pen or a pencil, and you will soon be reminded of the keyboard's utility.) When personal computers arrived, marrying the basic functionality of the keyboard as an input device to the technological ability to edit content before turning it into printed matter - what we now call "word processing," in an off-hand manner that suggests the concept has been with us always - the whole notion of "writing" took a leap into the future. Editing, rethinking, and rewriting became easier, while an individual's ability to produce content grew at an incredible rate. Factor in the development of e-mail, and basic concepts of correspondence and communication changed too.

It is probably no exaggeration to say that things got out of control, and by the mid-1990s there was already too much information arriving electronically for most people to handle comfortably. This likely helped spur the growth and sales of the handheld industry, beginning with the Palm Pilot, and making a PDA de rigueur for anyone with a business to manage and appointments to keep. The FiloFax got re-filed under "dinosaur."

In that context, it is tempting to view the growth of the PDA industry as a backlash against the psychological burdens of the personal computer. Although most PDA devices come with some kind of word processing software, or the ability to copy the contents of your e-mail inbox, it is hard to imagine writing lengthy tomes or detailed e-mail responses using a stylus on a small, two-inch by three-inch screen. And in fact, I would be willing to bet that most people don't; probably, the calendar and the notepad or jotter tools get the most use on the average PDA. It is not just that a Palm Pilot gives you access to important details in an easy format wherever you happen to be - it is that it can do so without giving you too much information.

I cannot help thinking that something of ourselves has been lost in this technological maelstrom. Despite all of the development that has taken place - reducing the size, weight, and cost of these technologies, while improving their speed and functionality - the focus has been on managing quantitative information, and not the qualitative stuff. PDAs help us remember the details of life, but they cannot always help us think them through. The device might remind you to pick up your child's birthday present, but is less likely to help you write down how you felt watching them turn five. Similarly, it may ensure that you have the address for your next appointment with the guy who wants to invest in your new invention - but it probably will not be as useful in writing the sales pitch you need to give him. And it may make it possible for you to read that emotional e-mail from your partner while you're riding on the subway, but may not offer the best method for pouring out your heart in return.

Adding keyboards to PDAs is not the answer, but the fact that they are missing from most models seems indicative of the way we manage information: as discrete bits and pieces, rather than as connected elements of a broader whole. If we want to reclaim the qualitative aspects of information management over the quantitative ones, then we will have to rethink things from the ground up - not just how new handheld computers are designed, but what it is we really want from them.

Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.