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Entertaining Thoughts On The Future

I just flew back from CES and boy do my arms hurt. Ouch, so does that joke. But my brain really does hurt, at least a little bit. Days of wandering around show floors, careening from booth to booth for vendor meetings, and running to press rooms to file stories (I did have a WiFi connection once, for about 30 seconds), certainly takes its toll on a gal.
I've had a couple days now to reflect on our future in the relative peace and quiet of my home (if any home with a child under 18make that 30--can be considered peaceful or quiet), and the thinking has me excited, yet a bit apprehensive. I know the revolution in digital entertainment and "the digital lifestyle" has been coming for the past few years now, but this time it seems like all the pieces really are in place for it to take off. What will the consequences be?
Think about itsome half century after the TV was developed we're still debating the impact this invention has had and is having on society, from launching shows that have helped preschoolers learn to read and high school dropouts get their GEDs, to contributing to poor attention spans and the phenomenon of pre-teen girls parading around like their favorite music idols in tube tops and mini skirts. Fast-forward to the Internet, which has brought us not just access to an unprecedented amount of information from our living rooms and local coffee shops, but also allows porn (including child porn) to spread more easily, and enables kids to skip honing their research skills in favor of downloading pre-written term papers, not to mention engage in cyber-bullying. GameBoys and in-car DVDs keep the kids quiet on long car rides, but at the expense of the things families used to have to do to pass the time, like, sing 999 Bottle of Beer on the Wall or, hmmm, maybe even talk to each other?

I'm no LudditeI like my PC, my DVD, and I came of age with the generation that wanted its MTV. My MP3 players not so great but I'm hoping for an iPod, or a Walkman phone, or heck, why not the new MusicGremlin I saw at the show, which lets users download music over WiFi (despite my poor WiFi experience at the show I still believe!). You can even check out what your buddies are playing and download the same songs, if you subscribe to MusicGremlins service. I like the idea of having movies, music and my digital photo collection seamlessly streaming around my house--whether you buy Intel's and Microsoft'sversion of the idea or that of the HANA Alliance--to an HD TV in every room. And I think the new, actually affordable digital pocket projectors coming from the likes of Sony and Toshiba are pretty darn cool for watching movies at family barbecues.

But I also wonder what road this new world of immersive entertainment is going to lead us down. We've all read lots about how the Internet and the iPod, for all their wonderfulness, can also bring about a certain narrowing of our vision, a turning in of ourselves rather than reaching out. Instead of consuming your news from a traditional source that covers both sides of an argument, there are plenty of web sites that will serve up stories with the spin you've already subscribed to. Instead of being surprised by new music on the radio, plug your earbuds in and tune out the world around you. (On the other hand, who am I kidding about being surprised by new music on the radio these days?)

But consumer technology is trending from really good to greatyou can practically feel the blood splattering on you in Fight Night 3 for the xBox 360, or the softfur on the Madagascar movie creatures shown on an HD TV powered by TI's DLP chip. So how long will it be before people become more immersed in the digital world-- and the world those chips power inside their heads--than they are in the real one? I don't want to get all philosophical here but the industry is brewing an intoxicating entertainment and digital lifestyle mix that promises interactivity, but which I fear may ultimately encourage consumption more than creativity, and isolation over intimacy. I've been preparing myself for the possibility that when my two-and-a-half year old is a teenager Ill have to fight for his attention over a barrage of IMs, video games, and other electronic paraphernalia, but what I've seen at CES last week makes me think the fight is going to be tougher than I predicted.

I'd like to hope, though, that were not simply creating a future in which entertainment eclipses real-world connections, and I can see the possibility for those connections to be fostered in our brave new world. For instance, I really do hope that Intel's partnership with the newly launched ClickStar, or even Google's new video store, will provide a venue for artists to make their work accessible to the wider public even without big studio buy-in, keeping alive ideas that can change society. There's hope yet, if we don't become too bloated with ready-made fluff served up on a silver Ethernet, WiFi, or Firewire platter.