By Ted Leonsis
Karl Marx said: “The more sophisticated the machine, the more barbaric the worker.”
I had one of those ”Aha” moments last week. I was at an airport and went through security. I had an iPod with Bose headphones; a cell phone; a Treo to do AOL email; a Kindle to read; and a Sony laptop with wireless modem. I had five chargers with me. When I checked into my hotel room, I ended up using three different sockets to recharge my devices. My briefcase weighs a ton. My doctor believes this is how I got tennis elbow from carrying my bag with my left arm.
I now have to check my three offices for voicemail messages; my Caps account for email; my AOL account for email; my Facebook account for email; I get messages on AIM and on Facebook; and I get messages on my cell phone.
What have we done to ourselves?
None of this was supposed to happen, you understand. Read the trade magazines of a dozen years ago and all the talk is about “integration — how diverse components and applications were going to converge into new universal controllers, multi-function devices and web sites so complete in their offerings that you would never feel the need to leave them. Certainly, the notion of integration of experiences was in the back of our minds when Steve Case and I were forging a vision of America On-Line.
What we all forgot was what might be called “the stereo component rule”. Indeed, the example was right before us in our music systems. That industry too went through its fits of integration — some of you may remember the big record player-amplifier-tuner-cassette player monstrosities sold at places like Sears — only to see those eras each time blown apart by specialization. Sophisticated people bought their stereo components separately, and being trend-setters, the rest of the world followed — to the point where cost, form factor, and complexity drove the majority of buyers back towards integrated products. That too was a reminder that integration and top performance are almost always incompatible, as are specialization and practicality.And so here I find myself, as I suppose do many of you.
As a technology industry veteran and proud Road Warrior, I set very high performance standards on my tools — too high for any one-size-fits-all solution. And so my shoulder and elbow ache, and I find myself spending my first half-hour in any new hotel room crawling around the floor looking for wall plugs.Of course, all of this can’t go on forever. Certainly the iPhone suggests that we may be once again heading into an age of device integration. That gives me hope. But I also know that there will always be new discrete devices with unique applications and superior performance that I just won’t be able to live without. Moreover, there is no way that the current infrastructure, which by its very nature is slower to adapt, will ever be able to keep up. And that means that someday in my future, in some aging hotel room, I will finally run out of available plugs — and have to choose between the lamps and my toys — er, tools. And I already know that I will wind up sitting in the dark, staring at tiny, glowing displays.
Ted Leonsis is a long-time AOL executive and owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals. After surviving an airplane crash landing in 1983, he drafted a list of 101 things to do in life and has completed many of the tasks including producing movies and owning a sports franchise.