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This is the Modem World: Who's driving this thing?


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

I was never a fan of push notifications. The only alerts I wanted to get while my phone was sleeping included calls, texts and super-important reminders. I didn't need to know if someone liked the photo that I shared. I didn't want to be notified if I hadn't played a particular game in a few days. I'd get around to it. I'd find out on my own.

But lately, mobile operating system makers are pushing the push, rallying to turn their home screens into notification centers that cull all your social, entertainment and organizational information to allegedly make our lives easier. And, to be fair, the more information we consume, the more home screens filled with notifications and push messages are beginning to make sense: show me what's up so I don't have to go find it. I get it now.

So in an effort to join the 21st century last week, I said yes to notifications. Yes! Let's turn on score notifications. Yes! Let's install Facebook Messenger. Yes! Let's try Instagram with all its pushiness. Yes! Tell me when people like my pictures. Yes! Give me news headlines, weather, incoming Twitter DMs and email, and remind me of to-do items that are triggered either by time or proximity! I am a consumer! Feed me!

The result is mostly positive: I am forever presented with a buffet of information and now I spend less time looking for it. Things are being done for me now. Information comes to me. I am observing my online life and choosing to what I respond. It's efficient. It's good. I am king of my silly little domain.

But I risk overdoing it. Tribbles are everywhere. I must be careful to not overload the flow so as to obscure important notifications while consuming enough to keep me efficiently connected and in the know. And that's the trick, isn't it? Get just enough information pushed to you to turn your smartphone into an information appliance without rendering it a spammy floodbot of detritus. What if I miss mom's birthday because of that interesting thread on Reddit about butts?

Device manufacturers are all too aware of this as they scramble to create watches, eyeglasses and other second, third and fourth screens on which we'll watch all this push information flow by when we don't have our smartphones handy. We're setting ourselves up to walk around with our own personal server-client ecosystems -- our smartphone as a receiver and server, parsing out information to various wearable devices. Maybe a watch to see sports scores and incoming messages. Maybe a wearable device like Glass that will give us some heads-up information as we're running around. What else can we strap to ourselves to receive info?

But once we've soaked in all of this data, set up our own personal servers and dialed it back to the point that we're getting what we need, are we even driving our devices anymore? We're quickly reaching the point where the "input" in the input / output relationship of our devices is becoming one-sided on the side of the machines.

Would any of us be surprised to see the keyboard become an option in the future when buying a PC, meant only for writers and those who really need them, much like the graphics tablet has become the domain of designers and architects? Even the venerable mouse has seen better days, with most of us using touchscreens and trackpads, not bothering to use a traditional mouse at all. Maybe input devices will improve. Maybe voice recognition is on its way. But maybe...

Futurists once predicted self-driving cars without steering wheels. Our electronic steering wheels are rapidly being outmoded, stripped away in lieu of more output. Perhaps we're arriving at better input methods via voice and biofeedback. But perhaps, sooner than we think, we may find ourselves hard-pressed to even get a word in when it comes to the devices we buy.

And then we're just watching TV all over again.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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