I have been following some interesting conversations on FB recently and it occurred to me that our society has reached yet another “tipping point” with regard to technology.
I first became aware of this concept when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In his book about social phenomenon he explains that the term “comes from the world of epidemiology. It's the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It's the boiling point. It's the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.“ He goes on to state, “I'm convinced that ideas and behaviors and new products move through a population very much like a disease does.”
When I was a child we didn’t own a lot of things that had cords or motors or other things that might break down or fail, but if something did, then someone was expected to fix it, and that someone was usually my father. He even knew how to test the tubes in our television, buy new ones, and restore the fuzzy black and white images back to its screen. We seldom bought anything new until the old thing had been repaired so many times that there was no longer any hope for it. The only exception I can recall is my mother’s washing machine.
One of my mother’s favorite television shows was “Queen for a Day”, a game show that ran from 1956-64. Host Jack Bailey would shout, “Do YOU want to be Queen for a Day?” and the audience would wildly reply “YES!” Then four women would vie for the title by telling their compelling stories and the audience would choose the winner. The prizes were usually something that made life easier for the winner, like a washer and dryer so she could keep up with her seven children. Sometime after the show began my mother traded in her wringer washer for a wonderful machine that actually washed and wrung out the clothes without touching them! I don’t remember exactly when or how she got the machine, but I was thrilled because I had pinched my fingers many a time between the rollers of our old washer.
The idea of buying something new because it was better was a concept that didn’t catch on for a while. I remember my mother calling it “conspicuous consumption”. She thought people who traded in their barely used cars for new ones were just showing off. And she felt sorry for those who needed the “next best thing” in order to feel worthy of society’s approval. Besides, the newest thing wasn’t always truly better than the old one.
We all know that we have become the “throw away” society. We consume and dispose of products at an alarming rate. We no longer repair anything. We just replace it, and these days we don’t even wait for it to break- it simply has to be unfashionable or outdated to get the boot. Best Buy states that their new “buy back” program is “aimed at the serial upgraders who constantly want to upgrade to the newest device, especially within the smart phone market.” Serial upgrader- now there’s a great new label to have! Our obsession with the newest, latest, best, and flashiest has not only led to escalating greed and waste, but also to an increasing sense of boredom and dissatisfaction. How can we possibly be satisfied with “D123” when our neighbor has “D789”?
My mother bought a new washing machine because it fulfilled a basic need: it washed the clothes from start to finish without the need for her presence, thus freeing her to do something else. She kept the washer for years, despite the fact that others were created with many more features, because it continued to do what she wanted it to do- wash the clothes. Of course when it finally quit working she bought one that washed the clothes, dispensed fabric softener and bleach, had more cycles for different types of clothes, had a larger tub, and operated more efficiently. It’s not only natural to want more or better things, but we often don’t have any other choice. By the time an appliance wears out it really is obsolete and we are forced to buy the next best thing. Or the manufacturer/store makes the decision to upgrade for us regardless of whether we are satisfied with the old or not. That truth was made clear to me when we recently bought our granddaughter a camera for her birthday. We shopped, we compared, we shopped some more and three weeks later when we got ready to make our purchase, the camera we had chosen was no longer available and had been replaced by an upgraded model.
So change and progress march on. However, what struck me as odd this week is how our fascination with technology has become an obsession with the gadget itself. I have followed four conversations about new cameras- two online, and two live- and all four have focused on what the camera can do, NOT what the photographer can do with the camera. And while I am the first to concede that the newer digital cameras make some shots possible that previously were not, it is also true that the difference between a good photo and a great photo is often not the camera’s bells and whistles, but the eye behind the lens.
I have the same speculations about phones. Have all the features and apps improved our conversations or made us better at communicating with each other? They have made it easier to contact other people, but do we have anything important to say? They have given us options beyond speaking, but texting and tweeting have robbed many of our young people of the ability to spell or punctuate the English language. Cell phones have made driving more dangerous and decreased productivity in many workplaces. Yet having the newest phone seems to give people the feeling that they are superior because of their more advanced choices (doesn’t even matter if they can use all the apps and improvements- they can rattle off the model number and that seems to be all that matters). Cell phones have even given us a false sense of safety. I watched helplessly as a young mother said goodbye to her three young (under twelve) girls and told them to have a “good time shopping” at the local mall. Then she said, “You have your phone don’t you?” to which the older girl nodded. I truly believe the mom thought the phone would keep them safe!
I could go on and on. Televisions are bigger and their images are brighter and clearer, yet the value of the programs shown on them is at an all time low. It doesn’t seem to matter what you are reading these days, but on what device you are reading it. Dancing can’t be done to a song played on your CD player, but must be choreographed on your Wii.
Are we truly at the tipping point where we are upgrading products simply because it is possible, NOT because we need to upgrade? I think so, and I also think that the time will come very shortly when the product warranty will be a thing of the past because no one will expect to keep anything longer than six months. The “buy back” program will be a national norm and planned obsolescence will be at its peak.
As I said before, it is natural to want bigger and better. But I think at some point you have to ask yourself some questions. What can I do with this new product that I can’t do with the old one? Is it really so different from my old gadget that I NEED to upgrade? Will it make my life easier, better, more efficient or enjoyable? Or am I just jumping on the new gadget band wagon so I can talk about it on FB?