And A Digital New Year To All

Clear housing in the arch of he latest Adidas shoe, called "1", holds a microprocessor built around a motor unit as shown here in Portland, Ore., Thursday, May 6, 2004, during its' introduction at the company's U.S. headquarters. The shoe is equipped with a microprocessor capable of making five million calculations per second to adjust heel cushioning.
It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but, as usual, advertisers are reminding us that the big holidays are just around the corner. There's no use in our even trying to fight this premature commercialization. However in addition to seasonal slogans like, "Goodwill to Men (and Women)," "A Great Miracle Happened There," and "Peace On Earth," I'd like to add one of my own: "Just Because They Can Make It, Doesn't Mean We Have To Buy It."

As opposed to other generations, invention and technology have now outstripped need. As a result, there is a whole category of amazing things that exist that beg the question, "Does anybody really need that?"

Some people might say my robot vacuum cleaner falls into this category. That's a hard one for me to defend, especially since lately it's been spending more time gathering dust than sucking it up. But there are many more examples. Think of all those fantastic computer programs you bought or downloaded that you never use. There are gadgets on today's cars that we could probably all manage without. How important is it for us to know the outside temperature of our car? If it's hotter or colder than we'd like, what are we going to do? Just stay in our car until the weather changes? And how often do you really use that waterproof CD player in the shower? And was business really conducted less efficiently before people could "instant message" each other 24 hours a day?

I recently read about a new invention that almost defines this category. Adidas has developed the "smart shoe." Until now, I didn't even know my shoes were dumb. The new shoe comes with a computer chip so that it can be completely customized to your feet and stride. Theoretically, it can help make walking and running more comfortable and more efficient. Adidas says the shoe "has a motor that spins at a rate faster than the rotors of a Blackhawk helicopter." I guess that's impressive, but have they figured out a way to remove gum from its sole when you accidentally step in it?

I'm a little worried about this new product. Think about all the things that can and do go wrong with your computer. Now imagine if the same things happened to your shoes. Do you want to run the risk of some competitor like Nike mischievously giving your new shoes a virus? Or if they're worn in the Olympics, what's to stop another country from cracking our athletes' foot code? Forget about the elite athlete. What if you get this shoe because of its presumed comfort, and you're going for a casual walk, and suddenly for no explicable reason, your shoes start running?

Before writing off this invention, I wondered if there were ways of turning these negatives into positives. I believe there are. For example, if you're at home, wearing your computer shoes and relaxing when the phone rings, maybe you'd rather somebody else answered it. Now you'll be able to say, "Can you get that? I can't move. My shoes must've crashed."

So, maybe the best use of this invention will turn out to be claiming it's not working properly — just as people do with so many other technological wonders. You know what I'm talking about. As opposed to when humans took messages, now people can say, "I never got your message. My machine eats them up." When people lose interest in talking to you on the phone, they can say, "Sorry. I'm losing you on my cell phone." And of course, the reason the report is late is, "My computer froze."

So, maybe people will buy these shoes just so they'll have one more technological excuse for things. Wearing them, they'll be able to call work and say, "I can't come in today. I'm stuck in my house. My shoes' hard disk went bad, and the tech support line is busy." But before you smile about what a great friend technology is, caveat emptor. There's always the chance that when your boss bought his combination pen/video camera/air freshener, he also picked up a telephone lie detector.

Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver