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Entertainment overload

TiVo, DVDs, iPods, blogs, Xbox 360s: It's a world of endless possibilities. But is that really good for us?

If there is such a thing as Generation Gizmo, count Nicholas Cifuentes among its charter members. A graduate student in journalism at Emerson College, Cifuentes, 25, owns a 34-inch-screen HDTV with surround sound and digital recording capability, an iPod Nano, two Apple computers, and an Xbox 360, the latest in video game technology.

Cifuentes bought his high-definition TV last summer for $3,000. How much time does he spend watching it? ''Not much, maybe 15 hours a week," he says with a touch of chagrin. ''It seems like I have to have all the latest stuff, but I don't know why."

Having so many options at his fingertips is ''probably more frustrating than liberating," Cifuentes admits when asked how he divides his attention among entertainment and information sources.

''Is there some guilt here? A little, maybe," he says.

David Provost of South Dennis has likewise acquired an impressive arsenal of high-tech devices, including a video iPod, PlayStation2 console, large personal DVD collection, and DVR-equipped TV. With all that gear at his disposal, plus a 5-year-old daughter at home, he and his wife don't go out to the movies very often anymore, says the 29-year-old bank supervisor. Nevertheless, Provost feels the effects of entertainment overload.

''I have this idea there's a lot out there I'll never find out about -- and I'm at the cutting edge," says Provost. ''I'm not into satellite radio, though. Or podcasting. You have to draw the line somewhere."

Drawing that line has become trickier, according to many gadget-savvy consumers, as resources such as bandwidth and high-speed Internet connections expand and delivery systems (TiVo, satellite radio, multiple-use cellphones, et al.) race to capitalize on the digital revolution. At some point, a world of infinite possibility becomes a royal pain in the earbud. With only so many hours in the day and senses to be bombarded, plugging in here means tuning out there. Either ''Lost" gets lost or some other show goes. Jack Bauer is allotted 1,440 minutes to save the world on ''24," but for most people doing the laundry while catching up on ''American Idol" is a time-management challenge that would drive Bauer to his knees.

Now try 300 radio channels, plus a dozen premium cable-TV offerings, plus an endless stream of box-office hits on DVD delivered to one's doorstep, return postage provided. The mind reels, TiVo-ed past any rational capacity to process it all. Media clutter was even cited as one factor in the recent merger of two struggling TV networks, UPN and WB. Wi-fi, one is apt to wonder, or why more?

''What these devices allow you to do is experience an almost infinite variety of cultural events," notes Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore College psychology professor and author of ''The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less." But, he contends, having more choices than ever ''means you get less satisfaction out of whatever you choose."

Contracting attention spans plus expanding menus add up to fragmented psyches, according to Schwartz. ''You can smell it all, taste it all, feel it all, but not experience it all," he notes. Ergo, culture mavens find themselves looking over their shoulders -- metaphorically, if not literally -- for the next hot show, the next hip song, the next buzz-worthy weblog just a mouse click away.

Which may prove totally satisfying. Or not.

''I've reached technology saturation," one poster to the website wrote recently. Moaned another, ''I think I'm feeling entertainment overload. Sometimes I can't decide which one I want to do."

Chatter about overload throbs throughout the blogosphere. On urban, Armando Iannucci spins his decision to forgo watching ''The Sopranos" into a broader meditation on the saturation issue.

''It has been strangely liberating," Iannucci writes of opting to skip the hit HBO series. ''The earth has not stopped turning, nor have the central foundations of my sanity crumbled." Rather than succumb to ''an ever-expanding sense of failure," he goes on, adults ought to realize their ''completist paradise is not going to happen."

In other words, you can watch and listen to everything -- and never keep up. So get over it.

Still, the so-called ''digital stew" only promises to get thicker and richer as high-end technologies become cheaper and more available to the mass marketplace. That leaves plugged-in consumers like Craig Coulomber (iPod Mini, Sirius radio, laptop computer) facing some tough choices. In Coulomber's case, his PlayStation 2 is now ''collecting dust," says the 34-year-old Suffolk University Law School student, while his cable TV and Sirius radio hookups are getting less use than they did when they were the Hot New Thing.

''I have a lot of distractions, and that's one I don't need," says Coulomber of his waning appetite for video games. He is also listening to his iPod less these days, he says, fearing he'd become ''too disconnected" from his surroundings. ''I stopped going to movie theaters and subscribed to Netflix," says Coulomber. ''But even at home, I'll start watching a DVD and log onto the Internet Movie Database site to check something out -- and miss part of the movie."

Mark Carney, 55, may belong to Generation Gizmo more in spirit than in age. Yet the UMass-Dartmouth environmental compliance engineer has devised an unusual method of electronic multitasking. At night, Carney plugs his iPod into a docking station and plays it in shuffle mode while sleeping. With 4,003 tracks loaded on his iPod, ''it would take 573 days to play them all," says Carney.

Far from experiencing overload, however, Carney counts himself a happy camper. ''Growing up, I had difficulty concentrating in school," he recalls. ''Now I find I can switch modes constantly. I like having all these choices."

Ra Un, 22, agrees that being plugged in is more liberating than frustrating, for the most part.

''I feel pretty much in control," says Un, who lives in a Boston apartment with three roommates and works for a local advertising agency. The apartment has digital cable TV with DVR, but her choices don't end there. She also watches Video on Demand movies with her boyfriend, instant messages with friends, and listens to music on her iPod at the gym.

Paying for services she doesn't utilize enough? ''No," Un says. ''I feel good about taking advantage of what I've got. And I don't feel like I'm missing much."

When he lectures Swarthmore students about fragmented attention spans, says Schwartz, they often react as if he'd come from the preindustrial age.

''I tell them, 'You may be the master of iTunes, but it's unclear you're handling these choices so well,' " says Schwartz. ''Young people think they can do three things at one time and lose nothing, but that's false. They try to multitask, but in the long run they'll pay for it."

Perhaps, but in the meantime Un says she's found ways to unload some of the overload.

''My family has a house in Vermont with no TV and no cellphone service," she says. ''We sit by the fire and play cribbage. It's heaven."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

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