One early front runner for the title of the "YouTube of 2007" is a service called Twitter. Twitter enables you to broadcast to the world at large, via the Web or phone or instant message, tiny snippets of personal information: what you're doing, what you're about to do, what you just did, what your cat just did and so on. Twitter does the Internet equivalent of splitting the atom. It creates a unit of content even smaller and more trivial than the individual blog entry. Expect the response to be suitably explosive.
There's something delightfully self-deprecating about that name, Twitter--we're all just a bunch of happy birdies, tweeting away in our trees!--but it also makes me nervous. It's like the cocaine of blogging or e-mail but refined into crack. Internet addiction is an old story, but we're on the tipping point of a new kind of problem that might more broadly be called an addiction to data, in all its many and splendiferous forms.
A case in point: I take the subway to and from work, and shortly before I get home, my train emerges from underground, back into the world of sunlight and cell-phone reception. As it does, everybody on the train performs the same gesture in unison. We dip into our bags, briefcases, purses and pockets for whatever mobile digital device we carry. This is the behavior not of enlightened digital consumers but of addicts caught in an epidemic.
I try to regulate my data intake: I don't carry a BlackBerry, but I do carry a cell phone, and it has made me a rapacious consumer of text messages. I've become dismally fluent in typing on my cell phone's keypad, one-thumbed, while walking. Don't get me wrong; I have a full-blown e-mail problem too. I frequently override the little notifier app that checks my G-mail for me once a minute because an e-mail could have arrived in the intervening 60 seconds.
But we need a broader term like data addiction to take in the sheer hydra-headedness of the ceaseless craving for digital stimulation that contemporary technology is creating in us. When it's not coming in through my eyes, digital information is taking over my ears via my beloved silver iPod Mini (one of Apple's orphaned design concepts). A survey conducted by Stanford University last fall found that more than 1 in 8 Americans suffers from some form of Internet addiction. It hardly needs to be said that this problem doesn't wreck lives with the ferocity of alcohol or narcotics, but we have yet to take data seriously as a controlled substance. Here are three reasons the problem is about to get much worse.
One, mobile devices are getting better. As if BlackBerrys and Treos weren't hard enough to put down, Apple will start selling the iPhone in June, and the new category of ultra-mini PCs like the FlipStart and the OQO2 is threatening to make computers as portable as cell phones. Two, wi-fi is becoming ubiquitous. Google and Earthlink have a deal in place to supply all of San Francisco with free wireless Internet access. Philadelphia, Anaheim, Calif., and Madison, Wis., already have it, as do dozens of other cities and towns. Within 10 years, most of urban and suburban America will be bathed in free wi-fi service. Airlines are expected to fire up in-flight wi-fi in the next 12 months.
And three, Internet CEOs have become obsessed with making cell-phone versions of everything we used to get on our desktops. It's the Internet equivalent of Manifest Destiny. You can already get Google and YouTube and CitiBank on your phone. Now that you can Twitter from your phone, there's no longer any reason to look up at the world around you.
Like any good pusher, services like Twitter don't answer existing needs; they create new ones and then fill them. They come to us wrapped in the rhetoric of interpersonal connection, creating a sense that our loved ones, or at least liked or tolerated ones, are electronically present to us, however far away they may be. But I can't help wondering if we're underestimating the countervailing effect: the cost we're paying in our disconnection from our immediate surroundings, in our dependence on a continuous flow of electronic attention to prop up our egos, and above all, in a rising inability to be alone with our own thoughts--with that priceless stream of analog data that comes not from without but from within.