Electronic Design

Internet Addiction? Or Is Drinking From A Fire Hose Safe?

For many of us, the Internet has become both a necessity for work and the largest source of entertainment. At work we have high-speed networks that feed our screens at hundreds of kilobits per second to multiple megabits per second, but many of us have had to make do with 56-kbit/s modems or still slower interfaces at home. The advent of DSL and cable-modem technology, though, opens up an entirely new dimension for both small- and home-office users, as well as the general consumer market, to surf faster and download more quickly. But, users also spend even more time in front of the screen. In that time, users do even more surfing, or viewing, or listening to various downloaded files.

As our connections to the Web get better, using the Web becomes a more "natural" part of our everyday experience. In the past, with slower interfaces and computers, we would typically have to put aside some time dedicated to just going onto the Web for some surfing, or else set the computer to perform a download overnight so that we could view the data the following day.

Today, with Ethernet, T1, DSL, and cable modem connections and multihundred-megahertz desktop systems, handling data at 10 to 100 times the speed of 56k modems, opening a browser window while we're working isn't uncommon. We could watch, in real time, a streaming-media newscast while working, or listen to the latest news on an Internet radio station, or even play an interactive game with opponents scattered around the world.

The broad array of information and entertainment content on the Web can be overwhelming and addicting. I know many people who spend at least an hour or more a day just reading and answering e-mail messages, not counting any searches or surfing activities. Our desire for the latest information has driven us to continually scan Web sites for new information, sometimes manually. New searchbots are helping to automate searches for specific kinds of information, but then comes the daunting task of reading and evaluating all of the data. Furthermore, I know that the Web has also become a tool that enables engineers from multiple locations to collaborate. They can do their design on the Web using Web-based tools rather than locally running design software.

I sometimes wonder if, in some cases, we are overdosing on information to the point that productivity will start to decrease. How much can we absorb before we're overwhelmed? Are system designs changing so rapidly that information lag times of hours will matter that much in the final system design? Granted, certain Web sites or information sources must have real-time or near-real-time updates, like stock-market activities or the broadcast of sports games. But how much is enough? What do you do to limit your time on the Web, or to make the best use of it? Send your comments to me.

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