The Vision Thing: Time Bandits

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Sunday, 5 p.m.; Monterey, California. One of the most scenic places on earth, and it's unlikely I'll get a minute to enjoy it. I'm here for a Web publishing conference–a group of print and online editors struggling not to get left behind as the rest of the Internet speeds ahead like a crazed pack of nearsighted lemmings.

The keynote speaker talks revolution and finance–no, I don't get it either. And I'm too busy taking notes for this column to be bothered with figuring it out. My subject? Bandwidth. The incredible lack of it.

Monday, 8 a.m. The weather's turned nice on Monterey Bay. Breakfast is outside and the weather is sunny, even if the conversation isn't.

The real challenge isn't bandwidth, the attendees at my table say: it's latency . Servers are becoming overburdened trying to fill the pipelines they're attached to. That's because of the increasing number of Web users, the higher percentage of those users accessing servers over high-speed connections, and the growth of Web tools that access multiple sites simultaneously. Sites such as Google and AuctionTracker, not to mention utilities such as Apple's Sherlock, exponentially increase the number of hits one Web user can wreak on the Internet with just a few clicks. And servers are struggling to keep up with this vast growth in traffic.

But as I hurriedly take notes on the subject, I realize that I'm not that worried about server latency. It's human latency that keeps me up at night.

I look up from my notepad and realize everyone's left the table. Late again.

Tuesday, 12:01 a.m.; my hotel room. At last, some private time. It's been a busy day–sessions, conversations, dinner with coworkers, drinks after dinner–and here I am again, past midnight before I can get some real work done. To heck with sleeping. I can always do that tomorrow.

It's true that the Internet is starting to hit the wall. But so are the human beings the Internet is intended to serve. Our lives are complex, and they're getting more complex by the minute. Work, family, friends, hobbies, travel–the slate is very full, and that's before you add in all the things that technology enables us to do.

No matter how simple the tools make it for us to surf the Web, chat with friends and colleagues across the planet, make our own movies, publish our own newsletters, and build our own Web sites, we are rapidly running out of bandwidth–time, to put it in more human terms–to enjoy these things. And it's frustrating because when we're done with all the things we have to do, we have little if any time left for the things we want to do.

Tuesday, 10:15 a.m. A speaker complains he can't read a 700-page book that he really wants to read. Whose fault is it? His for being a lazy reader? Or the publisher's for not presenting the information in a more efficient format? That, he contends, is what the Internet should do–distill information.

He's wrong. It is his fault.

Let's assume that the information in that 700-page book could be distilled into an e-mail. What's being lost? Context and nuance and all the meaning they entail. The experience of reading a book is just as important as what we learn from reading a book. That's why teachers frown on students' using Cliffs Notes–not because they won't learn the facts (an especially strange concept if you're talking about a work of fiction) but because they'll miss out on experiencing the words of the author and the emotional content they convey.

Yet this speaker is ready to trade in that experience just to recapture some of his lost time.

Technology is great. But we need to start thinking about what we're giving up in the drive to enable people to do more. Are products like Apple's iMovie terrific? Absolutely. But creating a movie is going to take more time than most users expect. The result? Instead of empowering users, the software ends up frustrating them and eating up their time.

If we're smart, while we're working so hard to make our products better, faster, and smarter, we may want to spend some time doing the same for ourselves. Otherwise, even the greatest innovation will be doomed to failure because no one will have any energy left to take advantage of it.

Tuesday, 2:00 p.m. Lunch is done, and so is this column. Time to move on to the next session. What is it about? Oh, yes, building communities on the Internet.

So it goes.

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at

February 2000 page: 23

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