We are a bipolar technology nation — alternating between big and small. For example, I love my 60-inch LCD flat-screen TV, but I must have the new Droid X with 4.3-inch high-definition screen and 8 megapixel camera. In a society enamored of extremes, nowhere is our fascination with the cutting edge more apparent than in the world of technology.

America’s sizing craze was aptly characterized in the movie Super Size Me, the 2004 documentary in which filmmaker Morgan Spurlock gained nearly 25 pounds and lost much of his health during a one-month McDonald’s-only diet. The documentary demonstrated that Americans are so enamored with “bigness” that they’ll gladly supersize their ultra-fattening fast-food meals, even though obesity is a runaway epidemic and America is among the top 10 fattest nations in the world.

On the opposite side of the coin, we’re bombarded almost daily with ads for products that promise to deliver extreme thinness. For example, the NBC TV show The Biggest Loser and similar programs enjoy great popularity.

In the world of technology and computers, there’s a similar fascination with “big this, small that.” When reviewing the history of computers, the machine’s size is a prominent fact. For example, the first general purpose computer in 1946, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, included almost 18,000 vacuum tubes that took up 680 square feet. It is frequently a matter of fascination that the first PCs, such as the IBM 5100, were the size of a suitcase and weighed 55 pounds. That was 1975.

Now, of course, we have the new Apple MacBook Air — the “world’s thinnest notebook” computer. The 11-inch model weighs only 2.3 pounds. 

Even the names of our computers tend to fall into size categories. There are supercomputers, mini computers, micro-computers and now tablet computers. It’s not that we lack other categories or names — the mainframe, smartphone or PDA — but rather that so often the conversation returns to size.

For an IT leader, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype and overextremes. However, as with most things, the best approach is balanced. While it’s true that size matters because size is important to functionality, all functionality is not reducible to size.

The benefit of being size-agnostic, if you will, is that we can better focus on the task at hand rather than getting sidetracked by our mental images or biases about the importance of size to task. Think of the battle under way between Intel and AMD to develop the world’s most powerful microprocessors. One might imagine that these devices would need to be huge in order to be effective, but this is no longer the case.

While computers are generally smaller and more mobile, larger computers and their facilities are increasing in size. Companies and governments are getting into the cloud and running large data centers, some ranging from 400,000 to 1.1 million square feet. Further, supercomputers have become mammoth. According to Computerworld, the Tianhe-1A supercomputer at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin, China, peaks at 1.206 petaflops, uses more than 21,000 computer processing units and graphics processing units, weighs 155 tons and covers a full square kilometer. 

One thing is certain: We are not a one-size-fits-all society, and there is no single approach to technology that benefits every organization. IT leaders benefit from taking a strategic business approach to technology optimization rather than being awed by the latest and greatest — or by the marketing of tiny versus Super Size Me.

Andy Blumenthal is the CTO of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at http://totalcio.blogspot.com. Blumenthal’s views are his own and do not represent those of any agency.

Andy Blumenthal  |  Contributing Writer

Andy Blumenthal is a division chief at the U.S. State Department. He was previously chief technology officer at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A regular speaker and published author, Blumenthal blogs at User-Centric Enterprise Architecture and The Total CIO. These are his personal views and do not represent those of his agency.