Parents tackle information overload

(parent.thesis) blogger Amy Tiemann knows that she can't live without technology, but wonders if it ultimately makes her life as a parent easier or just more complicated.

Technology helps us manage family life in many ways. It's hard to imagine being a parent without email and cell phones (though our parents managed just fine), and I've written about TiVO and iPod as transformational technologies for parents in my book, Mojo Mom.

And yet, I sit here on the brink of mental information overload, and physical gadget overload.

The sure sign that this situation has passed the tipping point is that I frequently find myself using one phone to call the other, usually to find my Blackberry as I fly out of the house. It goes both ways though, mobile to landline and vice-versa. I've pitched the idea of a "cordless phone tether" to several friends, and they've all said it was a good idea, before realizing that it was a joke about the fact that we already have corded phones.

Three other signs: First, the proliferation of gadgets and their docks/rechargers/adapters has formed an impenetrable layer in my desk drawer. It's hard to know when it is time to part with each of these accessories. Many of the adapters look nearly identical but have slightly different connectors, creating a confusing mass that is quickly approaching junk.

Second, it is hard to keep current on all the online accounts and memberships I have. This is not just about junk email, but recurring loops of problems that waste money if they are not resolved. For example, I have a recurring online subscription that I need to cancel, that goes through an online banking account I need to close, that has a password I can't retrieve because I am somehow flunking my own security question test, and live phone help apparently is not offered. I am finally in the process of unraveling this one, but now I am on the step of retrieving the password from the subscription web site. Dormant, unattended account costs us money and leave us vulnerable to undetected fraud.

Yes, I feel like I have a big L for Loser branded on my forehead just thinking about it, but I can't be the only person overwhelmed by digital clutter like this, can I? Add in the household management and information oversight for three people and one dog, and I start to feel like I need my own personal IT department just to keep up.

Which brings me to my final problem: Even tools designed to help me simplify all this can have a startup phase that is too steep to climb at the moment that I most need organizational assistance. I received a review copy of Bento, the new personal database program from FileMaker for Mac users. It looks like it's just what I need to start organizing my information, but I first need to upgrade to Leopard to run it, opening up another set of decisions and tasks. I am not quite ready for Leopard, so no Bento for now.

Many others are writing on this as we live it. A couple of weeks ago in our local Raleigh News & Observer, there was a column by our book editor J. Peder Zane that theorized "We're servants of our overload." We don't read novels because we read so much online; we don't write letters because we write emails, and we don't converse on the front porch because we're too busy on our cell phones. Directly next to his piece was Michelle Slatalla' column, reprinted from The New York Times, which described the ongoing task of collecting and recycling her family's outdated gadgets.

In other words, it's as though I am living in The Far Side cartoon where the student raises his hand and says, "Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full." But it's not just my brain--it's my desk, my iPod, and my inbox, too. I'd love to hear how technology both simplifies and complicates your life as a parent. Overall, is it helpful, or just unavoidable? Are we in a situation where it all evens out, like air bags and antilock brakes giving drivers the feeling that they can just keep driving faster?

 

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