Saturday, December 31, 2011

Buying Locally in 2012

Perhaps the most interesting idea for thoughtful consumers to ponder for the new year is buying locally. Not only farmers markets, but small local businesses benefit from this. Consumers benefit by having access to special items that aren't available in every mall or supermarket across the country. The community benefits not only economically but also by forging links that bond neighbors together. Linton Weeks, who wrote an NPR post about the "new American localism," suggests that it may provide a new (revised from the 1960s) slogan for a bumper sticker: "Think Locally, Act Locally." Seems very thoughtful to me.

Happy New Year and thank you, readers, for your continued interest in and support of this blog!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Secret Santas

In the middle of all the usual holiday season advertising that encourages us to spend with wild abandon, and the attendant nervous speculation about whether or not we will, it was refreshing to read the following post from one of my favorite blogs, Cool Chicks from History. It's about Secret Santas:

If you haven’t heard yet, there is a nice little trend going on where people are going to Kmart and other retailers to pay off other people’s Christmas layaway. (Layaway is a program where people put aside items and pay for them a little bit at a time through the store).

In Grand Rapids, MI 20 Kmart layaways have been paid off in the last three days.

More than a dozen people have visited Bismark, ND Walmarts to anonymously pay off someone’s layaway.

An anonymous donor in Davenport, IA paid off four Kmart layaways.

Secret Santas have paid off layaways in Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, and Montana.

The phenomena seems to have started in Michigan and most of the incidents so far have happened in the Midwest. Donors have mostly asked to see lists that include Christmas toys and left a small balance, asking that the person who put the items on layaway be told that the bulk of their balance has been paid off.

Kmart, Walmart, Target, Toys R Us, and Babies R Us all have layaway programs if you are inspired to play Secret Santa yourself.

If you have a little extra cash, this is a great idea for how to spend it wisely. It also reminded me of another Secret Santa opportunity which I've enjoyed in the past. The Post Office collects letters to Santa Claus from needy kids for Operation Santa Claus. Here's the scoop from their website:

We hope that you will participate in Operation Santa Claus and become a Santa's helper this year by answering one letter or multiple letters from needy children. These are children who are not asking for toys, but for articles of clothing, for school supplies, for a toothbrush or other personal care items. While toys are a lot of fun, the items on these children's "Dear Santa" list are much more basic. Please help!

Here's a link to the list of participating Post Office locations, but you might also check with your own local Post Office. After you sign up, you'll be given a letter (or a bunch of letters to chose from), then all you have to do is purchase the items on the child's list, wrap them up and drop the box in the mail (I gave the return address of Santa Claus, North Pole, of course). There's still time to give a child -- and the child's family -- a great surprise Christmas! 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Thoughtful Consumer Holiday Sales!

While mindless holiday shopping is something I don't advocate, mindful shopping for meaningful gifts is part of our holiday traditions. With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for gifts from The Thoughtful Consumer for friends and family -- or yourself:

If you'd like a boost to get you going on that seemingly inevitable New Year's resolution to unclutter and organize, try reading my book! You can find it on in both print and Kindle formats, but there's a special sale going on at that will let you save 30% on CyberMonday. To take advantage of the offer, click here for the print version; click here for the e-Pub version (you can read ePub books on the iPad, Nook, your computer and many other devices, but not the Kindle). At check-out, enter the code: CYBERMONDAY.

If you need to focus on getting your closet under control, check out my 20-page article, "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy." It's available exclusively for the Kindle (and Kindle Reader) here, always for only 99 cents!

Art is beautiful, interesting, challenging, uplifting, stimulating, meditative, thought-provoking, soul-embracing, and sometimes just plain ol' fun. I think of it as an important part of life; I don't think of it as unnecessary "stuff." Granted, if you have too much art in your home, it can become as problematic as anything else that clutters your space, but usually people collect art rather than pile it up like too many toys or t-shirts or plastic food storage containers.

So, because I hope to contribute to the life-enhancing qualities of daily life -- and because it's just plain ol' fun -- I make art. You can see it on my blog, Art by Cynthia, which features examples of art I make and art I like. [Above: Japanese Garden Bridge, 3"x4", image transfer painted with watercolors, matted] Search the categories to see the paintings, drawings and hand-colored photographs I've posted, all with reduced holiday prices if you order by December 25, 2011. There are additional charges for shipping. If you live in Los Angeles and would like to see some of my other work, let me know and we can arrange it.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Buy Nothing Day 2011

I'm appalled by the decision of some large retailers to open their stores on Thanksgiving to extend the time for what is usually the traditional Black Friday sales. Black Friday is bad enough, having gone from frantic buying frenzy to the kind of insanity that results in injuries and even death. Why diminish the value of Thanksgiving, which doesn't have any shopping other than food associated with it, by turning it into part of an annual high-pressure spending event?

Although the concept of simple living seems to be more popular each year and the necessity to cut back on spending is definitely increasing for most families, we still can't shake the idea that buying stuff is the primary focus of the holiday season. So, I'll mention once again the sanity-saving holiday, Buy Nothing Day, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. One day, November 25th, in which we make the decision not to spend our money. At all. Period. It's like a one-day fast: enough to make you aware of what you're doing, not enough to cause you any harm. It also keeps you out of the Black Friday madness.

But, realizing that we can't go forever without buying anything, after our one-day fast let's also consider being more conscious of how and where we do spend our money. Small Business Saturday, on November 26th, advocates shopping in locally-owned, non-chain stores. The two-year-old initiative is sponsored by the big business American Express in support of its small merchant customers. A company spokesman explains that by next year it will become "a part of the holiday tradition nestled between Black Friday and Cyber Monday."

Yes, Cyber Monday is now an "official day," too. The term was invented in 2005 by, part of the U.S. trade association National Retail Federation when it was noted that "millions of otherwise productive working Americans, fresh off a Thanksgiving weekend of window shopping, were returning to high-speed Internet connections at work Monday and buying what they liked."

I doubt that we'll return anytime soon to the days when a joyful holiday season wasn't associated with spending massive amounts of hard-earned cash on everything from gifts to decorations to a new holiday wardrobe, followed by months of deprivation while trying to pay off the bills. But as some of us continue to spread the idea of restraint, maybe more of us will start to be mindful of our spending choices. Spending is a choice, once you've taken care of survival necessities, and while everyone is entitled to make their own choices, I know that camping out for a full week to snag a few Black Friday deals isn't one I'd make. Would you?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Technology and Convenient Shopping

There's a fine line between offering convenience to shoppers and manipulating them. I'm not sure where that line is drawn -- probably in different places for different people -- but we, the consumers, would have to stop shopping altogether to avoid all the subtle and not so subtle maneuvering that influences us. Because that's an unlikely proposition, all we can do is become aware of what they're coming up with to steer us in the direction they want us to go: the cash register. Here are some of the latest "convenient" ways that we're being encouraged to part with our money:

Mastercard wants to make shopping and paying on your smartphone easier with a soon-to-be-available Google Wallet app: "Utilizing gesture recognition tech, items could be selected on-screen by holding your hand over an item and navigating through the checkout process." Literally, wave your hand and you've got what you want!

WalMart plans to use social media data to figure out how to sell to you. This includes: "Using data from social-media interactions in the neighborhoods around Walmart stores to help determine how to stock them. Providing gift suggestions for your friends and family members based on what they’ve been talking about on Facebook and Twitter. [Sending] alerts from smartphone apps that flag you while you’re shopping in Walmart about products in sync with your social genome." Fortunately, those alerts will be an opt-in choice.

Macy's and Bloomingdale's are already offering shoppers free Wi-Fi and digital receipts. "The brands have also added live chats to their online shopping sites, allowing customer service representatives to provide real-time assistance to customers."

Also, " has launched a new denim fit finder for women powered by fit personalization software. The function allows online shoppers to select a pair of jeans among all of the denim brands offered by using a three-step process based on a customer's body type and style preferences." Now, that's convenient!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Five Aggressive Advertising Techniques

A thought-provoking update to my previous post about facial recognition software:

"5 Sci-Fi Ad Techniques That Are About to Make Life Creepier," a post on, lists some surprising methods, including facial recognition, that will affect -- or already are affecting -- how advertisers reach us:

1. Ads that literally whisper in your ear
2. Billboards that watch you back
3. Digitally editing product placement into old TV reruns
4. Eavesdropping on your phone calls
5. Eavesdropping through your computer

Notice this startling ad for Amnesty International that's mentioned in category #2; technology can be put to work for non-profits, too.

But have we gone too far? Of course, even if we have, there's no turning back now. Do you think these techniques will make you more susceptible to the ads you see or might your awareness make you resentful of the advertisers? Do you have greater concerns about your privacy? Will you alter your shopping behavior or use of technology now that you know what's going on? Is "1984" almost here?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Advertising and Facial Recognition Software

Targeted marketing is nothing new. Advertisers always want the most bang for their buck, so gathering information about consumers has been a crucial part of figuring out an effective strategy to get us to spend on a specific product or type of product. "Loyalty programs" that reward shoppers with points or discounted prices on goods and services are probably the most common way to find out who's buying what. Every time you swipe your card at the grocery or drug store, you're not just getting lower prices on your merchandise, you're handing over valuable information to the companies that track your spending. Assuming you filled out the identifying information on your card application honestly, there's a goldmine there: not just what you buy, but where you live, how old you are, maybe even your income bracket. And that information is offered voluntarily buy consumers. What about information that's gathered without consumer knowledge? And what if that information is based on your facial features that identify your sex and your age range? Or even you as an individual?

Facebook had to calm irate users a few months ago when it introduced facial recognition software that could automatically identify friends when you uploaded photos of them onto the social network. People complained about fears of invasion of privacy -- a frequent issue that Facebook has had to address and a rather odd situation considering most users volunteer a huge amount of personal data that can be harvested by the applications they allow to access their profiles. Surely you've noticed that the ads you see are affected by your posts and links, even if you are resolutely app-free.

But how will facial recognition software be used for advertising in a retail setting? From the recent LA Times article by Shan Li and David Sarno: "Picture this: You stop in front of a digital advertising display at a mall and suddenly an ad pops up touting makeup, followed by one for shoes and then one for butter pecan ice cream. It seems to know you're a woman in your late 20s and, in fact, it does. When you looked at the display, it scanned your facial features and tailored its messages to you."

This is not just conjecture about the future; the application is already at work in some locations and companies like Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas are exploring its use in kiosks, vending machines, and on digital signs. Even trendy bars in Chicago are using it to keep the male/female customer ratio in balance and in a designated age range.

Naturally, privacy advocates are concerned about misuse of the software, for example if individuals are identified and the information is used by insurance companies or the government (some police and national security agencies already use it with mixed results). "What if the government starts compiling a database of everyone who shows up to protests?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of [the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center]. "There are so many 1st Amendment and human rights concerns. It's a slippery slope."

And yet, most companies just want to use facial recognition to sell us stuff. Will it work? Perhaps. But there's one interesting twist that's come up. In a popular YouTube video, "HP Computers Are Racist," two retail employees test the facial recognition software in their store computer and discover that it recognizes and follows the white employee but not the black one. The black employee jokingly says that this is proof that HP computers are racist. But I happen to know of more than one black person who would observe that this must be the first time that a surveillance technology has been designed that excludes them based on their appearance!

Are you concerned about the use of facial recognition technology that targets ads to you?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Cluttered Space: That's Outer Space

Sometimes we may feel overwhelmed by the amount of clutter we have in our homes, but it's always helpful to get perspective. At least most of us don't have to face anything comparable to NASA's mess:

"There are 22,000 objects in orbit that are big enough for officials on the ground to track and countless more smaller ones that could do damage to human-carrying spaceships and valuable satellites. The International Space Station has to move out of the way of debris from time to time.

'"We've lost control of the environment," retired NASA senior scientist Donald Kessler said in a recent report about space trash.' Kessler also suggested that it may become necessary to clean up some of our orbital junk."

The solutions to the clean up are still being debated:

"[I]deas range from a $1 billion U.S. Air Force 'Space Fence' radar tracking system, to a proposed European Space Agency probe that would spray loose rockets with protective foam, to an Italian spacecraft equipped with robot arms to help de-orbit the biggest pieces of debris."

More ideas:

Scientists at the University of Surrey in Britain have unveiled a 6.6-lb. miniature satellite fitted with a “solar sail” that can be deployed to de-orbit equipment left floating in space.

Russia is looking to build a $2 billion orbital “pod” that would sweep up satellite debris from space around the Earth.

The problem in space is the result of years of ignoring the situation. Now it's significant; it's hazardous and will be expensive to clean up. You've probably ignored your situation for a long time, too. But unless your clutter is so far out of control that it's jeopardizing your health and safety and will require hiring a professional crew to clear it out (see help for hoarders here), you'll be able to handle the job yourself with time and effort. Compared to NASA's mess, that's not so bad.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Ursus Wehrli Tidies Up

For the first time, both of my blogs, "The Thoughtful Consumer" and "Art by Cynthia," are showcasing the same thing -- or more precisely, the same person: Ursus Wehrli. Never before has art overlapped so perfectly with uncluttering and organizing!

From a post on PSFK:
"Swiss artist and comedian, Ursus Wehrli, known for his Tidying Up Art books (where he tidies up famous artwork, such as Van Gogh’s Room or Botticelli’s Beach by carefully rearranging them) returns with a new project. In his forthcoming book, The Art of Clean Up he brings his passion for sorting things to everyday life and objects."

See his TED Talk for more about tidying up art.

I find his work to be creative and hilarious. But, in real life, at what point does "tidying up" become obsessive? From the point of view of the readers of this blog, I suspect that's not much of an issue. And yet, in order to avoid tackling the large clutter issues in your life, do you ever obsess over a small area that you can control by making certain it's orderly? Does this somehow prove to you that you're really not living a cluttered life -- you just don't have enough time to be neat and tidy everywhere; just look here (wherever it might be) where you've clearly demonstrated that you can succeed at uncluttering! I know a woman who was overwhelmed by the clutter throughout her home but, whenever she tried to tackle it, she'd end up cleaning only the kitchen. The rest of the house was untouched, but that clean kitchen reassured her that she hadn't lost control completely.

I don't feel compelled to tidy up everything and I'm very fond of some messy art, but Ursus Wehrli provides amusing proof that order can be made out of all manner of "chaos." Just watch the video to see how he cleverly resolves the "mess" in a Jackson Pollack painting. As I said: hilarious!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Urban Gardens Also Grow Communities

While it's been a long time since I was a practitioner of the fine art of gardening, I retain an interest in it and confess to living an occasional rich fantasy life as an urban farmer. The benefits of urban gardening are not just personal to the gardeners; cultivating the land can revitalize neighborhoods, too. For an example, take a look at this 10-minute video about the current impact of urban gardening in Detroit, the much more ambitious plans for the future of agriculture in the city, and the challenges that kind of development faces:

"Seeds of Progress: How Urban Farming Is Changing Detroit's Future"

Of course, not all stories of urban gardening are cheerful. Robin Finn writes in The NY Times about theft from the 700 community gardens scattered throughout the city:

" hear urban farmers speak, no borough, and no garden devoted to edibles, whether sprawling or thimble-size, is immune to theft. 'Food is more attractive than flowers, especially in this economy,' said Marjorie J. Clarke, a caretaker at the flowers-only Riverside-Inwood Neighborhood Garden, known as RING. On the Upper West Side, cucumbers are tops for filching; in Harlem, the main draws are chilies and herbs; on the Lower East Side, green and red peppers; in Brooklyn and Queens, tomatoes and squash."

If you have a green thumb that's itching to get into the dirt or if you just want to find out more about urban gardening, the following links can be helpful:

"A Starter Guide to Urban Gardening" : From Inhabit, a blog with the motto, "Green Design Will Save the World."

"Urban Gardening: You Can Grow Food No Matter Where You Live" : EarthFirst posts about indoor gardening, container gardening, community gardening and guerilla gardening.

Urban Garden Magazine: "We want to inspire everyone, no matter what their domestic situation, to get growing. Even somebody living in an apartment on the 37th floor can produce surprising quantities of their own vegetables and herbs."

"The Edible Garden: Breaking Ground" : An LA public TV special in which six expert gardeners demonstrate how they use sustainable methods to grow beautiful organic produce. Available on DVD.

Previous posts from The Thoughtful Consumer:
Guerilla Gardeners
Off the Grid

If you do start an urban garden, or if you already have one or participate in a community garden, please share your experiences with it in the comments. Is gardening as satisfying as you hoped it would be? Does it help feed your family? Is the garden contributing to a sense of community?

And if it's just plain fun, please let us know that, too! Thanks.

UPDATE: I had just published this post and discovered within seconds this excellent story by Steve Lopez, also just published online in the LA Times:

"In the Weeds of Bureaucratic Insanity There Sprouts a Small Reprieve" : "Ron Finley planted a garden that fed both stomachs and souls in an area where healthful food is scarce. When the city demanded he remove it, neighbors protested and a councilman stepped in to mediate." ~ Please read this story of a man who planted his garden "between the curb and the sidewalk along his property in a 10-foot-wide, 150-foot-long strip of useless, scrubby grass" and discovered that it produced friendships as well as vegetables.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Small Houses, Urban Gardens, Consumer Spending ~ and a Blog Anniversary

In honor of today's fifth anniversary of The Thoughtful Consumer blog, I'm taking a hiatus from my hiatus to share several articles devoted to three of my favorite areas of interest: small houses, urban gardening, and consumer behavior.

Small Houses

As regular readers know, I enjoy exploring the options offered by small houses, but sometimes I'm amazed at just how small a house can be and still have someone willing to live in. The design model pictured above is an example. This house will be 28" at its narrowest and about 4' at its widest. It's scheduled to be completed in December in Warsaw, Poland, and, yes, it was commissioned. Read more and see more photos at the NPR post here.

Urban Gardening

On an acre of land in the densely-populated Mission Terrace neighborhood of San Francisco, "Little City Gardens recently became the first legal commercial farm within city borders. Thanks to [the women gardeners], San Francisco leaders revised zoning laws to allow the cultivation and sale of produce in all neighborhoods." Will Oakland and Berkeley follow suit? Read more in the LA Times article here.

Consumer Behavior

The recession may have put a damper on spending in the U.S. on items to decorate homes and make them more fashionable, but that's not the case in other countries that are developing a middle class with "disposable income" for the first time in their histories. Brazil, Russia and, especially, China are hot markets not only for the stylish stuff but for the glossy magazines that pitch it. Architectual Digest is about to start publishing in China, but more than just foreign branches of already established magazines are finding welcoming markets; brand new publications, such as Minha Casa and Bamboo in Brazil and Home in Russia, are also being launched. Can clutter be far behind? Read more here in the LA Times.

I'll be back with more posts soon!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Recycling, Flash Mob Style!

The Thoughtful Consumer is going on hiatus for awhile again. In fact, I haven't posted for several weeks so it looks like my hiatus started before I was even aware of it! I'll be spending some time writing more short articles on uncluttering and organizing, like the one I mentioned in my previous post: "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy," and working on a new art project.
For now, I'll sign off with a brief YouTube video featuring a flash mob from Quebec, Canada, that has a very surprising way of advocating recycling. ~ Enjoy! And thank you, as always, for your support and interest in this blog.

Image credit: Carlos Gustavo Curado at stock.xchng

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to Get Dressed . . . Without Driving Yourself Crazy

From the listing for my 22-page downloadable article:

"Fashion challenged? So is Cynthia Friedlob, author of 'Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff.' In this article, she focuses her uncluttering and organizing spotlight on simplifying any woman's wardrobe. She speaks from baffled personal experience, having made the majority of her clothing decisions guided by the wisdom of Gilda Radner: 'I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn't itch.' But Cynthia lives in Los Angeles, a city that judges your character by your logos, so eventually she had to devise a fashion system so basic that it would be guaranteed to work, even for her. Find out what she learned about how to avoid clothes closet drama and how to get dressed with a minimum of fuss and bother!"

Yes, "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy" is available once again, now exclusively for the Kindle. Only 99 cents! Click here for the link to purchase. Don't have a Kindle? Click on the link and scroll down the page a bit. On the right side of your screen you'll see free downloadable software that will let you read any Kindle book or article on your PC, iPhone, Blackberry, iPad or Android phone. It's a great deal that gives you access to a huge library of Kindle publications.

I hope you enjoy the article! Please feel free to leave comments or questions here on this post or on Thank you!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Charitable Donations After a Disaster

Responding to a natural disaster brings out the best in most of us. We want to help, we're eager to donate, we may even organize a drive to collect items that we'll send to the affected area. But sometimes our donations can cause even more problems for the recipients. AP writer Jay Reeves reports on the situation in Tuscaloosa after the recent tornadoes (After Tornadoes, Junk Donations Become a Challenge):

"...with storage space scarce, most [charities] say they can't handle any more used toys or cast-off clothing. 'That becomes the disaster within the disaster,' said Salvation Army spokesman Mark Jones. 'When people make those mass donations . . . it causes the community to be overrun with them and have to deal with that in addition to the storm damage.' . . . Temporary Emergency Services of Tuscaloosa County already has ten warehouses full of donations, but too many of those items are broken toys, dirty stuffed animals and used underwear that has to be thrown in the trash, said agency director Karen Thompson. While the warehouse space was also donated, Thompson said storing all that stuff is still costly because the organization must pay liability insurance to cover the operation in case someone is hurt on the job."

I have no idea why anyone would donate items that are in such bad condition that they have to be trashed, but obviously even the well-intentioned donations of usable goods can backfire.

So, what should you donate? Cleaning products, new underwear, nonperishable foods, pet food and sports drinks are usually safe bets, but if you can check with the charity first, that's advisable. Cash is always welcome.

An interesting thought to ponder is why it so often takes a disaster to get those donations out of the hands of their owners. It's obviously stuff that's not necessary and it could have been donated before the disaster occured. So why hesitate? Why not let go sooner, before an emergency happened?

And what will happen to all the stuff that's currently overflowing at the relief centers?

"'We hate to tell people 'no,'" [donation center volunteer manager Beth] Rhea said. So any left over water, clothing, baby food and other items will be donated again, possibly sent to other parts of the state that may be short on supplies. "We will box it all up, label the boxes and send them to another disaster."

Let's put our good intentions to work and donate what we can right now. Then let's set aside some cash to help out when the next disaster hits, as it surely will. We can think of it as just another good way to practice emergency preparedness.

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Laura Griffith at stock.xchng

Friday, May 13, 2011

Artfully Organized

I've mentioned before that our brains are hardwired to create order out of whatever we encounter, so it would be reasonable to assume that the less work our brains have to do to figure it out, the faster we'll get to a mental state we find comfortable. If we constantly assault our brains with chaos, we'll become stressed, exhausted, perhaps numb. We won't be able to function at our peak, nor will will we be able to fully enjoy ourselves because our poor old brains will be preoccupied trying to make sense of things. This is why empty beaches at sunset are relaxing -- and why uncluttered homes are less stressful.

We can use this information to help us get inspired to organize our possessions. What if we tried looking at beautiful images in which "stuff" is organized and displayed in such an appealing way that it becomes art? Once you've pared down your clutter to a manageable amount, it's helpful to change the way you look at what you're keeping. If you think of it as art and think of yourself as the curator of your own personal museum, you'll approach organizing it in a different way.

Check out "A Collection A Day, 2010," a blog by artist/illustrator Lisa Congdon in which she uses photographs to beautifully document her many collections.

Then go to Things Organized Neatly, a blog featuring photographs submitted by its readers, with each photo representing things that are well-organized. [Hat tip to Dina at Discardia for this link.]

So, how many things should you keep and organize? That's up to you. But you might want to take a look at one of my favorite books to get some perspective about how many possessions people have in other parts of the world. Material World by Peter Menzel, Charles C. Mann, and Paul Kennedy features photographs of families from all over the globe, standing outside their homes, surrounded by their possessions -- many or very few. It will help you decide that maybe your personal museum doesn't have to be quite as large as the Met!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Gavin Mills at stock.xchng

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The American Dream: Shopping?

Author/entrepreneur Seth Godin posted on his blog today about the reinvigorated Xanadu, a huge shopping mall project in New Jersey. Triple Five, the company who created the gigantic Mall of America in a Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb, are taking over development of the stalled Xanadu shopping complex in New Jersey and they plan to rename it The American Dream Meadowlands. Seth speculates about the significance of the moniker and the goal it represents:
"Is this the best we can do? Shop?"

Good question. The developer pitches the project as an opportunity to create jobs and adds that it will drive tourism to the area. NJ Biz reports:
"Triple Five’s Mall of America attracts 42 million people a year, but 'we believe and are confident American Dream will be drawing 55 million visitors every year,' 40 percent to 50 percent of which will be tourists, [Dan Jasper, Triple Five spokesman] said. The local population surrounding Mall of America 'is insignificant' compared to that of New Jersey and New York, he said."

Of course, the attraction won't be just the projected 300 stores and fifty restaurants:
"The expansion will include a glass-domed indoor amusement park, an indoor water park, an indoor skating rink, bowling alley, mini-golf course and aquarium; Triple Five plans to retain the ski slope, outdoor observation wheel, performing arts center and 26-screen, 5,000-seat movie theater that already were part of the project plan."

And yet, I suspect that the people who currently show up at the Mall of America entertainment/retail venue and those who will show up at The American Dream will find shopping an integral part of their experience.

The American dream has long included a certain amount of stuff -- "a chicken in every pot," a bungalow with a white picket fence -- but the quantity of stuff that's included now has increased exponentially. It's not enough to have comfort; now we expect luxury. It's not enough to have what we need; now we want what we want -- and plenty of it.

The original American dream was focused on freedom from persecution. Have we abandoned all such noble goals? Have we stopped dreaming about providing affordable health care to everyone, a solid education for children in safe public schools, cities with fully functioning infrastructures? Or personal goals like sending your kids to college, having a meaningful career and a secure retirement?  Has it all been reduced to wanting enough cash for a good time at the mall and a home crammed full of more stuff than we'll ever use, let alone need?

Life doesn't have to be a daily exercise in which we think only of serious responsibilities to our fellow man and our own survival. It's legal to have some fun, too! But how do we define the American dream now? Seth asked if shopping is the best we can do.

No. We can do better.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Clutter and Stereotypes

It's probably no surprise to most of us that a cluttered space can make a person feel uncomfortable. Our brains are hard-wired to create order out of whatever we encounter. That's why we often can see faces and figures when we look at clouds. It's why we try to create understandable patterns when we're really dealing with random information. We want to interpret the abstract and the unpredictable in ways that are familiar, comfortable, something that makes sense to us. So a disordered environment just doesn't sit well with the way our brains work. Obviously some of us are able to function in more of a mess than others, but it's an unusual person who doesn't find order to be more calming than disorder.

However, a fascinating recent study has found that disorder also can have another effect on our brains. According to an article by Amina Khan in today's LA Times:

"People in messy environments tend to compensate by categorizing people in their minds according to well-known stereotypes, researchers from Tilburg University in the Netherlands say."

The idea is that we fall back on the comfort of "orderly" stereotypes when we're made uncomfortable by a chaotic environment. The study used a train station during a time when cleaners were on strike and compared responses to questions and situations to the responses received when the station was neat and clean. They also experimented by questioning subjects in front of a house in an affluent neighborhood when a few items made the exterior look uncared for and again when the house looked as tidy as would be expected. In both cases, responses revealed significant differences in the amount of stereotyping done by the subjects. In addition:

"Lab experiments further confirmed that when faced with images of chaos — be it a messy room or a random scattering of triangles and circles — volunteers rated themselves higher on a scale measuring their personal need for structure. When they were allowed to express stereotypical feelings immediately after seeing those disordered pictures, however, their 'personal need for structure' scores were lower. Stereotyping satisfied that need, said [social psychologist Diederik Stapel, the study's lead author]."

The conclusions: the need for order matters even more than we knew it did and it can have unexpected effects on our thoughts, perhaps even our behavior. Does this mean that if we could unclutter everyone on Earth, we might at last find world peace? Well, that may be stretching it a bit, but it couldn't hurt!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Hazel Bregazzi at stock.xchng

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Cloud Collector's Handbook and Clutter

You may think this topic is a bit off-base for The Thoughtful Consumer, but stay with me!

Yesterday I read an article in the Science section of the NY Times entitled, "A Guide to Entice Heads into the Clouds," by Cornelia Dean. It's about Gavin Pretor-Pinney's new book, The Cloud Collector's Handbook:

"The book teaches readers how to identify clouds they have seen and gives them a place to record the sightings, just the way birders create life lists of the birds they have spotted. It even has a scoring system, in which cloudspotters receive 10 points for ordinary clouds like nimbostratus, the more or less featureless rain clouds people typically have in mind when they say clouds are depressing; 40 points for a cumulonimbus storm cloud, the anvil-shaped 'king of clouds'; and more points for more exotic formations.  His goal, Mr. Pretor-Pinney said in an interview, is to help readers escape the tyranny of 'blue sky thinking' and to understand and appreciate the beauty of a cloudy day."

I happen to like looking at clouds, so I would have enjoyed the article anyway. (I think even sunny day lovers will like the spectacular photos in this gorgeous related slide show.) But there are two observations in the article that I want to share with you. First (italics are mine):

"True, [Pretor-Pinney] acknowledges, clouds are ephemeral, 'magicked into being' by the atmosphere and constantly changing. And, of course, they cannot actually be gathered up and stored away. But as Mr. Pretor-Pinney sees it, you don’t have to possess something to collect it: 'You just have to notice it and record it."'

Learning to look at something you'd like to have for yourself and then walk away from it is a skill that's mandatory to develop if you don't want your home to be overrun with stuff. But I'm particularly fond of the idea of recording something as an alternate way of collecting. A collection without a collection!

I've been doing something similar on Facebook. Because I'm interested in vintage advertising and packaging, I've collected many photographs of old fashioned typewriter ribbon tins. The graphic design on such a small package is clever so I decided to use them as profile pictures. My collection exists only in digital form but, like any true collector, I'm enjoying sharing it with my Facebook friends.

And here's another wise observation from Mr. Pretor-Pinney's cloud collecting handbook:

"'Happiness does not come from wanting to be somewhere else,' he said. 'Happiness comes from finding beauty and a stimulation or interest in the everyday surroundings in which you find yourself."'

How can we find beauty, stimulation or interest in our everyday lives if we always want more stuff and our lives are filled with clutter?

Let's live uncluttered lives so we can take time to look at the clouds!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: MarcelTH at Stock.Xchng

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Feeling Pressure from Technology

Just a couple of weeks ago, nobler souls than I celebrated the second annual National Day of Unplugging during which they disconnected from all technology for a twenty-four hour period. The idea comes from a group called Sabbath Manifesto, who advocate unplugging for one day each week. They're not anti-technology; in fact, they're on Facebook and Twitter. They even have an app to help you detach. Their admirable purpose is simply to get us "to slow down our lives in an increasingly hectic world" and reconnect with other people on a more personal, meaningful level.

A complete voluntary detox from all technology for even a day can seem pretty daunting to most of us who depend on being wired, probably far more than we realize. And yet, one of the common complaints in contemporary society is a feeling of being overwhelmed by technology and its effects. I can barely remember a time when I didn't feel pressure to pay attention to multiple sources of information. In the mists of ancient history, I do recall not having a cell phone, not even having an answering machine. There was no cable television and only a handful networks and local stations. No personal computers meant no Facebook, no e-mail. You couldn't Google something; you had to go to the library and search through reference material. When you got together with someone, you talked, uninterrupted by text messages. I love the benefits that technology brings us, but I do have a certain nostalgia for that unfettered, unpressured feeling I had when I wasn't constantly available or constantly beseiged by information.

And it's not just the unrelenting flow of information resulting from current technology that's an issue. Digital cameras make us feel pressure to capture every moment of our lives. If you've ever been the designated photographer at an important event (even in the pre-digital era), you know that taking pictures can remove you emotionally from the experience; you feel everything second-hand. Now not only does the photographer feel that way, but the subject can have his experience and memory of the moment replaced immediately by a digital image. Dave Pell wrote on Tweetage Wasteland about the impact of this in a post called "We All Have Photographic Memories:"

"For his third birthday, my son had a surf-themed party at a way too cold beach in San Francisco. I’m sure he had created a self-image of how he looked in his rash-guard and shades as he balanced on a freshly waxed, beach-bound longboard. Like most parents, I felt compelled to go paparazzi on my son and his friends from the second we unloaded the car. And because he is a child of the digital age, my son followed nearly every snap of the camera with the same request: 'Can I see the picture?' The instant my son looked at the image, his imagination-driven perception of himself was replaced by a digital reproduction of the moment he had just experienced.

"During a presentation on happiness at the Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Digital photography gives additional dominance to the remembering self. At his birthday party on the beach, my son almost leapfrogged over his realtime experience. He was no longer imagining what he looked like on that surf board. He was looking at what he looked like. The wave of emotions, senses and reactions that made up his initial experience were swept away by the undertow of a single sense: what his eyes saw on a two inch viewfinder."
I love the benefits of digital cameras, but what happens to us when we don't savor our experiences because we're so busy documenting them and reviewing the documentation that the experience itself gets lost? What happens when we barely get to create our memories in our minds before they're created digitally, then often distributed to friends and "friends" before the moment has fully passed?

NPR's "All Tech Considered" picked up another fine post by Dave Pell, this one about the effect of creating our very public images online, something we're pressured to do to participate in social media networking: For Sale On the Web: You! And, yes, we are selling ourselves:

"I need you to know how full my inbox is, how great my marriage is, and what an awesome workout I had this morning.

"Friend Me. Follow me. RT me. Like me. @ Me. Poke me. Forward me. Buy. Buy. Buy.

"The age of subtlety is dead. So we all push the product nonstop and the product is us."

And then, he points out, we check the stats to see if we've made the sale. How many comments did we get, or re-Tweets, or "likes?" Did we build our "brand?" To be always on, always selling is a lot of pressure.

How does pressure from this technological overload affect us as consumers? Online pressure directed at our public selves can make us feel insecure or competitive, perhaps like we need something more to make our images appear as successful as we'd like to be, so we acquire more stuff.  Pressure just to keep up with technology itself can make us feel unsatisfied and that makes us vulnerable to wanting to acquire stuff to make us feel better -- sometimes more technology. Pressure to be wired and fully informed can cause us to spend more time attempting to do that rather than doing other things that are more important and more satisfying, like connecting on a personal level with our family and friends -- or making and keeping our lives uncluttered.

I definitely feel the pressure and the sense of being overwhelmed that many of us share, but overall, I like spending much of my time online and I like all of the benefits technology gives us. And yet, more often than I'd like to admit, the availability of technology in my life hasn't always necessarily resulted in the best use of my time. Like now, when I've avoided uncluttering some stacks of papers by writing this blog post.

Did I feel pressure to write something? Of course. Did it contribute to the task at hand: uncluttering my my life? Unfortunately, no. Did I enjoy writing it? Absolutely!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob

Related Post: Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Alternative Housing: Lighthearted Links

The sun has set on McMansions according to real estate writer Steve Bergman in an article for The decline of the appeal of gigantic homes began in 2006, but the collapse of the real estate market over the past five years has resulted in a change in housing priorities:

"The median-sized home being built today is smaller," reported Paul Bishop, vice president of research for the National Association of Realtors. "And our survey of homebuyers indicates that as well."
Problems getting financing and expenses involved with the upkeep of larger houses have contributed to their lessening appeal, but I'd like to think that an awareness of how much space we really need has fueled the increasing interest in smaller homes.

"Homeowners feel the days of appreciation are not coming back so they are not going to be purchasing homes just for the sake of investing," said Kermit Baker, chief economist with the American Institute of Architects and a senior research fellow at Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. "Homebuyers are purchasing because of how they intend to use the home, on the basis of what they need. They are treating their home more like typical consumer goods rather than investment goods."
Although I've devoted many posts to housing and I think it's a topic worthy of serious consideration, sometimes it's fun to take a break and think of shelter in a completely different way. 

Eve Politanoff at What's up! trouvaillesdujour has three posts about treehouses along with an assortment of great pictures on her blog, including the "castle" above from Portland, Oregon, and an airplane hotel suite at the Costa Verde resort in Costa Rica.

Dai Haifei, a young Chinese architect, recently graduated and unable to afford the high cost of housing in Beijing, built a mobile egg-shaped, solar-powered house that he lived in for two months on the sidewalk near his employer.

Joyce Wadler at the NY Times wrote about Derek Diedricksen, who makes micro-shelters out of salvaged junk. His RelaxShacks blog provides more information about other building projects, his book, YouTube series and Tiny Shelter Building Workshop set for this summer.

Fast Company offers a post about a 90-square-foot minimalist loft with walls covered in . . . 25,000 ping pong balls! The space serves as a part-time bedroom for Daniel Arnshem, partner in the firm, Snarkitecture, where the loft is located.

And, finally, Strictly Paper offers an apartment made entirely out of cartons, white paint and black marker! It's a great artistic statement and timely social commentary.

Please click on the links to see many wonderful photos and learn more details about all of these clever "alternatives!"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Advertising to Children: Geo Girl Make-up

Does an eight-year-old girl need an anti-aging face cream? WalMart thinks so.

Geo Girl is a line of "natural make-up and skin care" in recyclable containers. The target users: girls eight to twelve, also known as "tweens." The products were scheduled to launch in WalMart stores this week but have not yet appeared on the shelves.

Make-up for kids is just a slight modification of a phenomenon started with the 2006 make-up line from Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. It was successfully marketed for teens although it also proved to have pre-teen appeal. But the twins extraordinaire have grown up and refocused on a fashion empire, and their followers are now all old enough to pop for "real" make-up. Marketers needed to move on, but this time why not include an even larger group of potential customers who already spend about $24 million per year on make-up? Most of this tween money is spent on lip gloss, eye shadow and mascara. According to an ABC News report, mascara use in that age group increased from 10% to 18% in 2009.

The report has much more to say on the subject of young girls and make-up, including concerns about skin damage from inappropriate use of exfoliators on youthful faces and possible psychological damage from pressure to be beautiful and sexy at an age when those demands are premature. You can watch the entire 6-minute video in the link, but here's one obvious conclusion:
"We are raising another generation of girls who kind of measure their self-worth based on what's on the outside," Dr. Logan Levkoff, author of the book Third Base Ain't What it Used to Be said to "Good Morning America."
Make-up is just part of the challenge. Young girls are confronted daily with advertising and media input that insists that they should be concerned with how they look. The NYU Child Study Center offers this disturbing information in an article entitled "How to Raise Girls with Healthy Self-Esteem:"
  • Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression are the most common mental health problems in girls. 
  • 59% of 5–12th grade girls in one survey were dissatisfied with their body shape.
  • 20–40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5–12th graders, 47% said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls' drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression, and unwanted pregnancy.
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 are confronted with "teen" issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73% of 8–12–year-olds dress like teens and talk like teens.
  • 20–40% of girls begin dieting at age 10.
  • By 15, girls are twice as likely to become depressed than boys.
  • Among 5–12th graders, 47% said they wanted to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • Health risks accompany girls' drop in self-esteem due to risky eating habits, depression, and unwanted pregnancy.  
  • Girls aged 10 and 12 are confronted with "teen" issues such as dating and sex, at increasingly earlier ages. 73% of 8–12–year olds dress like teens and talk like teens.
The countermeasures to all these sad statistics are in the hands of parents. There's a list of specific suggestions in the report (such as open communication about the issues, good role modelling, avoiding stereotyping), but the conclusion is:
"It is within the family that a girl first develops a sense of who she is and who she wants to become. Parents armed with knowledge can create a psychological climate that will enable each girl to achieve her full potential." 
Make-up for children is more than a consumer issue; it's an ethical issue. But how young is too young to wear it? I was surprised to learn that some parents don't find Geo Girl products objectionable. And, for the record, WalMart marketers have said that they'll be targeting the parents, not the kids, offering the make-up as a "green" alternative. Somehow that seems as disingenuous as toy manufacturers saying they target parents with their advertising.

I can't imagine the pressures that little girls feel today to be sexy. It seems such a sad loss of innocence and childhood years that should be enjoyed without that kind of burden. I'm not a parent, so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts. I'll try to keep an open mind, but I don't think anyone will be able to convince me that an eight-year old needs anti-aging cream.

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Sonia Castro at StockXchng

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just a Little Bit More About Clutter

Sandy Banks is one of my favorite columnists at the Los Angeles Times, so I was particularly interested to read about her struggles with clutter:

"But I finally hit rock bottom last weekend, as I pawed through my collection of boxes in search of a receipt my tax man needs. My problem isn't containers or labels or color coding. It's the fact that the thickest folders in every bin are MISCELLANEOUS and TO BE FILED."
Oh, how I sympathize!

Her solution was to hire a professional organizer, a great idea for someone who feels overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of her. Of course, she was embarrassed, like many of us would be, to let the organizer see things in a state of chaos, so she cleaned up a bit first, in spite of the organizer's request to let everything remain just as it was. This is about as silly as cleaning up before the cleaning lady comes, but it has the added disadvantage of not giving the organizer a true picture of your problems.

I suspect that a professional organizer would have some useful insights about my clutter, whether I cleaned up a bit first or not. But I also suspect that the ultimate solution would require adopting the famous Nike slogan: Just do it. As much as I'd like to believe that there's a short-cut to improving the situation, I doubt that the useless papers will leap into the shredder on their own nor will the clothes choose to fly from the closet and into the nearest charity collection box. However, like Sandy, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed right at the moment, too, thus this short blog post. So, I'm adopting the viewpoint of Scarlett O'Hara instead: Tomorrow is another day.

Read the entire article by Sandy Banks here. Clean up tomorrow!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image by datarec at stock.xchng 

Monday, January 31, 2011

Just a Little Bit of Clutter

I just watched an episode of professional organizer Peter Walsh's new show, "Enough Already." Whenever I watch that kind of television program, I'm always concerned that the people whose homes are being uncluttered are not getting the psychological help that they need in order to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to live uncluttered lives. I hope that there's some work done behind the scenes with professionals who understand on more than just a cursory intellectual level how and why the subjects' lives became consumed by clutter. As much as I'd like to believe that the uncluttering experts onscreen can transform lives, I have serious doubts.

I'm also amazed by the quantity of clutter that the subjects have acquired. With the exception of television shows devoted specifically to hoarders (we expect to see tons of stuff surrounding them), these programs feature average people whose clutter simply has overwhelmed them. Cluttered homes that look like the ones we see on TV are chosen because of their dramatic impact. No one would be particularly interested in watching a show about dealing with just a little bit of excess stuff; we like to see people in extreme situations, confronting demons larger than the ones we face. But the majority of clutter sufferers are not living in a state of chaos; we're living in a state of constant irritation. That's demoralizing, too, and can be surprisingly life-inhibiting.

"It's just a little bit of clutter," we say dismissively, as if it didn't really bother us. But it does. The reasons we tolerate our small amount of clutter can vary but, whatever they are, we end up accepting it as an annoying, yet "normal" part of life. However, "just a little bit of clutter" can cause us quite a lot of stress and anxiety. We shuffle it around to get it out of the way, hide it if friends are scheduled to come by, and curse it as we berate ourselves for our inefficiency. How much better would our lives be if we simply dealt with it? For example, I have a few small piles of papers that I can't seem to sort, file or toss. They sit in wicker trays, tormenting me whenever I look at them. I realize that they represent, as Peter Walsh likes to say, postponed decisions. And yet, I keep postponing.

What if I looked at my situation differently (and you looked at your situation differently, too)? What if we tried the Clean Slate method suggested by Jeffrey Tang, who blogs at The Art of Great Things? In a guest post on Leo Babauta's blog, ZenHabits, Jeffrey explains that rather than working to unclutter by subtraction -- removing things that are unnecessary -- we could try working by adding what we need as we need it. We would do this by literally boxing up all of our clutter and then pulling out what's needed at the time when we're going to use it. Eventually, the unnecessary stuff will be left in the box for an extended period of time and we'll figure out that we can let it go. This is a bit like the process I describe in my book, Sorting It Out, in which I suggest that we take an inventory of what we need rather than what we have and then use that list to help us make decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Jeffrey's system requires more heavy lifting, but for some of us, that may be what's required. There's a simplicity to this approach that's appealing, too, as well as the immediate gratification of a cleaned-up home.

Even more dramatic is the "nuclear option" which requires packing up stuff and getting it out of the house, period. There's no intermediate step of letting it sit for awhile in case we need to pull something out of the box later. If it's not in use, it goes. The nuclear option for papers is the shredder. Don't analyze, just take a cursory glance (in case there's a bill or a check in the stack), then shred. Sounds rather exhilarating, doesn't it? And maybe a bit scary.

Often the real problem in dealing with these small quantities of clutter that most of us keep around is that this is the stuff that causes us the greatest attachment anxiety. With things, the issue is usually sentimental; with papers, it's that they're "important." So, even though we don't know what to do with the stuff, we cling to it mindlessly, allowing it to occupy space in our homes and our heads. Of course, if we truly valued the items in question, we'd display them or use them; if the papers were truly important, they'd be appropriately filed for easy access.

So, what if we just let it all go? What's the worst that would happen? Regrets, perhaps. What's the best that could happen? Relief. Empty space. The ability to move on. Focusing on the moment, not the past. Life.

Will we let "just a little bit of clutter" continue to burden our minds, distracting us from things that are important to us now, or will we confront the annoying stuff and liberate ourselves from its tyranny? Making that decision sounds just as dramatic as anything I've seen on TV. Tune in next week . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Harry Fodor at stock.xchng

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology

I can think of few people who don't suffer from some kind of problem with effective use of their time but the issue is especially pronounced among those of us who are regularly online. As much as I enjoy the benefits that technology offers, I know that the Internet can be a giant, if fascinating, technological time sink. Anyone who has a smart phone has added techno-pressure to stay connected. This burden of constant connectivity has created a hot topic of conversation, resulting in an effort to convince people to unplug for at least a short period to take a break and reconnect with their real world.

We usually think of consumer behavior as decisions we make about buying stuff, but we also consume time itself. (I prefer the concept of "consuming" rather than "spending" time. We take in entertainment and information and that process consumes our time, too. I never use the expression "killing time" - what an appalling way of thinking!) I feel an acute shortage of time almost every day and I can blame much of that on my use of the Internet. While it's necessary for me to be online for some portion of the day, I'm just as easily seduced as anyone else by interesting links that lead to other interesting links and on and on.

It's difficult for adults to handle time management in relationship to technology, but it's harder for kids even though, and perhaps because, they're technologically more sophisticated than many of their elders. But I hope your children, if you have any, are in better shape than the subjects interviewed for the article "Growing Up Digital; Wired for Distraction" because there are concerns beyond the obvious distractions technology can provide:
". . . computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

"Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

"'Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,' said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: 'The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.'"
One intelligent boy with a low GPA who was mentioned in the article "plays video games 10 hours a week. He regularly sends Facebook status updates at 2 a.m., even on school nights, and has such a reputation for distributing links to videos that his best friend calls him a 'YouTube bully.'" A 14 year old girl "sends and receives 27,000 texts in a month [emphasis mine], her fingers clicking at a blistering pace as she carries on as many as seven text conversations at a time. She texts between classes, at the moment soccer practice ends, while being driven to and from school and, often, while studying." A 14 year old boy, "an introvert, plays six hours of video games on weekdays and more on weekends, leaving homework to be done in the bathroom before school."

A quote from another boy offered insight that reflects on adult behavior, too:
"'Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.' He concludes: 'My attention span is getting worse.'"
The Washington Post reported the following results of a poll:
"Youth are spending more time with every form of media than ever, according to a report released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. They spend more hours on the computer, in front of television, playing video games, texting and listening to music than an adult spends full-time at work. According to the study, children ages 8 to 18 are now spending more than 53 hours a week (7:38 hours/day) using entertainment media. Ten years ago, that figure was 43 hours a week."
Of course, every generation for decades has lamented the potential to waste time offered by technological advances from radio to motion pictures to television. And perhaps to some extent they were right; it has always been easy to waste time listening to or watching entertainment on those media, but computers are different. Knowing how to use them has become a crucial skill that kids must master. Parents once might have been able to restrict their children's exposure to television, but computers are often required for homework, are used in many classrooms, and can be the key to future employment. They can't be ignored. And parental restrictions weren't working too well anyway ten years ago if that Washington Post poll is any indication -- 43 hours a week is still a huge amount of time devoted to entertainment media.

It's not just kids who are affected by ever-present technology. Steve Holt commented on Technorati's Soapbox Musings about its effects on adults:
"We keep pads of paper beside the bed to write down everything before we forget it. We look for more things to help us organize and prioritize our 'information,' to help us store it, sort it, filter it, and keep it safe. Because, after all, bad things will happen if we don't, right? What eventually happens is that we are bombarded with so much information, and so many choices, that we can't process everything. So we do the only thing we can do... we shut down, or more specifically, our brains shut down. We no longer spend time thinking critically and processing things. We stay 'shallow' with everything and everyone we come in contact with, and we wonder why we can't remember anything anymore."
Ron Geraci reported at Reader's
"'Technology is allowing us to do things we've never been able to do, and it's positively incredible,' says Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of CrazyBusy. 'The downsides are that it's addictive and you can become tied to it in ways that are exhausting.'

"There's little evidence that the rapid pace of technological innovation has made life markedly more enjoyable. In fact, it may be doing the opposite. Consider a 2007 survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that 48 percent of Americans feel their lives have become more stressful in the past five years. Then consider that all our electronic communication hasn't slowed the raging flood of snail mail, memos, books, magazines and other print matter that most people read to keep up on the job. No wonder that more than a third of those surveyed by the APA said a major factor feeding their stress was work encroaching on personal time."
Clearly there's a balance that we need to find that allows us to reap the benefits of technology without losing ourselves to our computers and gadgets. The Reader's Digest article also offered several suggestions to help us regain control, including setting limits on how and when we're accessible; sticking to a schedule for everything from answering e-mails, texts, and phone calls to recreational Internet use; and recognizing that there's no such thing as multi-tasking on anything that "takes dedicated brainpower to perform optimally." Easier said than done, I fear.

Are you feeling overwhelmed by technology? Have you tried a plan to find that balance in your life? How's it working out for you? And how's it working for your kids?

I'll check for any comments later. Right now I have to update my Facebook status . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob