Saturday, September 25, 2004


Inspecting gadgets

Yet another post here at Mode for Caleb has been inspired by Paul Musgrave, whose excellent blog has fast become a daily read. Recently Paul wrote about what he calls the Gadget Index, a tool for measuring one's daily reliance on digital tools. "At the moment," Paul writes, "I have: a Dell Axim PDA, a Maxtor external hard drive, an iPod, a Fujifilm digital camera, a Sony Ericsson camera phone, and, of course, the Dell Inspiron laptop. Six gadgets."

The Gadget Index, using Paul's terminology, measures how many of these six gadgets he can't leave home without. Lately, the Index has been at a high "3"--the phone, the iPod, and the camera. And the Index never falls below a "1" for Paul because the cell phone is a must. My index is "1" if I'm lucky, because I have a bad habit of forgetting my cell phone at home; on some days, the index is "2" because I take my laptop and phone with me to campus. My max is probably also "3" with the third gadget being my Archos Jukebox MP3 player.

Paul's post moves from these reflections on his personal Gadget Index to a meditation on technological change and progress. (I'm putting the word "progress" into Paul's mouth, but I think it's consistent with the gist of the post. You be the judge.) In a few years, Paul speculates, the Gadget Index might drop and stabilize at "1" with the invention of a "Swiss Army Knife of digital tools"--an all-in-one personal assistant, phone, camera, MP3 player, and God knows what else. Before the coming of this Tool of Tools, there will be another decade of "spectacular improvements in consumer technology," writes Paul. "The Gadget Index will probably fall to zero, or perhaps one, in the wealthy world. Or, as is more likely, the Gadget Index will simply no longer be a matter of comment, no matter how many accoutrements we acquire."

A few thoughts ... It's unclear to me that market forces will progressively drive the Gadget Index down. Gadgets are, as Paul notes, "consumer technology." The makers of gadgets therefore have a vested interest in making sure that the Index remains high--they need us to buy more gadgets. Of course, suppliers make the kinds of tools we demand, and it's clear that wrapping several gadgets into one is where the demand curve is heading. But does the invention of these new gadgets constitute real technological progress and innovation? Or are they manifestations of conspicuous consumption, a product of our need to have the latest and greatest versions of gizmos, even when the ones we have work just fine.

When it comes to other gadgets, it is easier to recognize how companies introduce superfluous innovations in order to convince us to buy a new version. I'm thinking, for instance, of the new Glade Wisp, "the only home fragrancer that automatically releases a measured puff of fragrance every few seconds. Unlike electric air fresheners, Glade® Wisp® Home Fragrancer has a microchip that ensures a consistent release of fragrance. With Glade® Wisp® Home Fragrancer there's always the same fresh fragrance in the air. The proof is in the puff—you can see it working!" As far as I can tell, this air freshener does what all the previous ones have done: it freshens air. But this is the first freshener that releases a puff into the air, in case you ever wondered whether your Glade Plug-In was working. This is a brilliant consumer innovation, because the advertising tries to convince you that the company's own previous products were "faulty" in some way. How do you know that old freshener we sold you really works? Buy a new one.

Another infamous example of this kind of consumer "gadgetage" is the continual iterations of men's razors. Here's the hard truth: shaving hurts. Give me the best razor in the world, and I'll still cut myself and irritate my skin. Give me the closest shave possible, and I'll still have a little stubble. Razor makers like Gillette know this, but they use your misery to their advantage by releasing, every couple of months, a brand new razor that is going to revolutionize shaving. Your old razor had two blades? This one has three ... make that four ... make that four with a gel strip. The latest in this line is the Gillette M3Power, a "MACH 3 innovation." The M3Power (a brilliant play on MP3?) runs on a AAA battery that loads into the handle. The battery causes the ravor to vibrate, and "the pulsing action stimulates hair upward and away from the skin, making it dramatically easier to shave more thoroughly in one easy power stroke." Once again, even though we also sold you your old razor, it's no good any more--this one's dramatically better.

I know that these kinds of gadgets are different from phones, personal assistants, cameras, but I think it is very hard to specify how different they are. The makers of both types of gadgets have become extremely adept at using technological jargon as selling points. Notice that Glade says the Wisp has a special "microchip," and the product website (link above) includes an amusing diagram of the ghost inside the machine. Likewise, the M3Power's blades "are enhanced by a new coating process, called 'thin uniform telomer,' which provides a perceptible improvement in shaving comfort throughout the life of the blade." Perhaps the difference between "Celeron" and "Pentium" is different from the difference between "thin uniform telomer" and the old coating process. But perhaps, on the other hand, having more and more and more processor speed, or more and more and more hard drive space, really is akin to having an old razor or a pulsating one, or to having three or four or five blades.

Aside from the way in which all of these gadgets ape technological authority, the same consumer logic applies in their production. The difference is that right now, the suppliers of digital gadgets don't have to work as hard to convince us that their innovations are not gratuitous, but essential. (Sometimes, between real version leaps, they have to strain. Remember in the early days of text-messaging, all those wacky commercials trying to come up with some reason, any reason, why you might need to use the service?) But are these innovations really changing our lives in progressive ways? The question is not whether they are simply affecting our quotidian routines--Paul makes clear that they are. The question is whether they are really making our quotidian routines better to a measurable extent. Will we someday look on the production of cell phones the way we now do the production of razors? I intend that as an open, not a rhetorical, question.

A second important reaction to Paul's post is this. Innovations in "gadgetage" cannot be measured objectively in a vacuum. "Technological progress" is a cultural construction, not an indisputable fact of life. And usually, people are unable to see this from the vantage point of the present: it's hard for us to imagine a real technological leap, so the most we can do is imagine successive refinements of what we have now. And as I'll suggest in a moment, it's not insignificant that we sometimes miss seeing the ways in which our views of technology are constructed.

It's helpful, in this regard, to look back to the past. When the first transatlantic telegraph lines were laid in the middle of the nineteenth century, people spoke as if time and space themselves had been obliterated. A new age of universal peace and harmony seemed just around the bend. In 1846, for example, Elihu Burritt, an eclectic American peace activist, wrote an essay in his newspaper on "Agents or Elements of Universal Brotherhood." Among these agents, Burritt listed the "gadgetage" of his day.
... there is the great steam engine at work with all the indomitable enthusiasm of its glowing heart, contracting space, reducing oceans to a river’s width, bringing the compass of a continent within the travel of a day; compressing sea-divided nations into immediate neighborhood; ... strapping countries together with railway bars--countries which kept each other's borders red with blood for centuries; transplanting the seated hills; ... The whole bent of this iron sinewed giant seems to be, to collocate the different tribes of mankind within a family circle, and around the central idea of Universal Brotherhood. Then there is the Magnetic Telegraph. ...
When I read passages like these, it makes it easier to see myself through some future historian's eyes. For Burritt, it seemed manifestly obvious that railway bars and telegraphs were the apogees of technological progress. We can see that they were not, but can we also see some of Burritt's beliefs in our own views about computers and digital technology?

Hopefully, reading Burritt induces some humility about our own gadgets and their seeming progressiveness. I use the word "humility" intentionally, because valorizing certain kinds of technology as essential or universally good can have unintended effects. For example, the conclusion Burritt drew from his observations on technology was this:
If Christianity keeps pace with Commerce, will there not be a glorious brotherhood, a nice family circle of mankind, by the time these literary lightnings shall be mounted, and running to and fro over the whole earth? But who are doing all this? Why, who else but that wonderful Anglo-Saxon race, that is diffusing itself and its genius over the world? That wonderful race, which thrives better abroad than at home; conforms to any climate or condition; whose language is fast absorbing or displacing all the spiritless tongues and dialects of the heathen world; in which millions of young pagans in the far-off ocean isles, "from Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand," and thence to the Yellow Sea, North and South American Indians, Polynesians, Australians, Hottentots, Caffres, Egyptians, Hindoos, Seikhs, and Japanese, are now learning their first lessons in civilization and Christianity. If British and American Christians do their duty, the boy is at school who will live to see half the human family speaking the English language, and half the habitable surface of the globe covered with the Anglo-Saxon race, and blessed with its civilization. The railway engines that shall thunder through the heart of Asia, Africa, and the American continent, will speak and teach the English language, and so will the mounted lightnings on all the highways and wire bridges of thought that shall be erected for the converse of the world’s extremes.
By making steamships and telegraphs "Anglo-Saxon," Burritt authorized an imperial vision of civilizing the world through the spread of technological innovation. Likewise, in an 1887 travelogue on China, James Harrison Wilson argued that the Chinese, whom he deemed inferior, “must be led to adopt our ways by showing them that our ways are better than theirs.” This superiority was proved by “the greatest industrial movement of all time,” which had “annihilated time and space,” “overcome Nature,” and was now spreading “its beneficent fruits to all nations and races of men.” (I've quoted directly from Wilson's book, which I found out about from Michael Adas's Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance, an indispensable work on this subject.)

I've obviously diverged very far from Paul's post. I hope he won't take offense at the divergence, because I'm not imputing to him Burritt's or Wilson's views. If I'm talking to anyone here, it's primarily myself. (That's what blogging is all about, right?) After all, I too have the gadgets Paul describes, and I have come to believe that they are essential parts of my daily life.

But it's important to be constantly reminded that this belief is the product of my particular situation in the world, rather than a pointer to universal truths about technology. (Again, not saying Paul is saying this.) As Paul points out in his closing thoughts, "the Gadget Index will probably fall to zero, or perhaps one, in the wealthy world." (My emphasis.) In Darfur, the Gadget Index for many is already zero, but for very different reasons. It's also important to stress that this fact only proves that I live in "the wealthy world," not that Darfur is an inferior world. (See Epictetus's second teaching in my earlier post.)

Although I am not in any way attaching them to Paul, views connecting technology and civilization are not unheard of today. You won't hear people stridently saying that cell phones are vehicles for the fruits of the Anglo-Saxon race. But you will hear people implying that spreading gadgets and technology goes hand in hand with spreading democracy. How different, in the end, is Burritt's vision of "railway engines that shall thunder through the heart of Asia" from the Bush administration's view that building brand new roads and schools with ceiling fans justifies our occupation of Iraq?

On a White House page offering the grateful testimonies of liberated Iraqis, there is this assessment from the National Review, quoted right alongside tales of Saddam's torture and coercion. "They [Iraqis] have never been so free and prosperous, and they expect things will get better still. There's been banking and currency reform, with lines of credit now readily available. Markets are thriving, property values are rising. Welcome novelties include free speech and almost 200 periodicals; Internet cafes, bloggers, and cellphones are everywhere." I'm hoping you noticed that "blogging" is being ranked with gadgets as proof that Iraqis have never been so "free and prosperous." The entire page is worth reading by the way. It includes this:
"Mister good!"
--Iraqi children, in broken English, to British soldiers in Basra, The Boston Globe, November 11, 2003
No mention of the Anglo-Saxon race ... But are the references to "broken English," or "cellphones" as agents of freedom, substantively different--in a rhetorical sense--from Burritt's description of railroads as agents of human brotherhood? Consider, in conclusion, the lede to this story in USA Today: "Denied many modern luxuries under Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's consumers welcomed the arrival of cell phone service over the weekend." See the hidden presumption? Political backwardness is linked with a low Gadget Index. Should we include, among the "modern luxuries" that Saddam Hussein denied Iraqis, the Glade Wisp and the Gillette M3Power?

Collective Improvisation:
Evidence of bad capitalist products is not evidence that capitalism is bad. The worthless products will one day be weeded out by the marketplace, leaving behind only those inventions that really strike a chord with consumers, either in terms of their utility or their style.

Because we can't predict just what will catch fire with the great masses out there, we have to put up with the Glade Wisps and the Gilette M3Powers out there in the market. No one's forcing you to buy them--but in the meantime, the great proliferation of products means that there are many other options out there that speak more directly to your needs.

No central planner could ever have guessed these needs--so we're left with the free-market system that we more or less have, which, while imperfect, is going to be better than any other out there at solving the intractable problems of the market.

Posted by Blogger Jason Kuznicki on 9/25/2004 04:17:00 PM : Permalink  

As so often, getting a historical perspective sends a little shiver down the spine. Thanks for that one, and all the other posts I haven't commented on too; your blog is fast becoming a favourite of mine for powerful, thoughtful writing.

Love the Gadget Index. But now I'm wondering: I take my laptop and camera out most days because I need them for work - but I certainly don't take them everywhere. So do they count? I also take my mobile out every day and don't like to be without it in case of emergencies, but I only switch it on from time to time to check for messages and hardly ever use it. So a 1/2, perhaps?

Oh, and air fresheners are disgusting things. Cheap perfumes just make me feel nauseous.


Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/25/2004 05:32:00 PM : Permalink  

Jason -- I didn't intend to argue that the bad products prove capitalism is bad. I only meant to say that markets do not necessarily select progressively better products. Markets are responsive to consumer demand, but it is harder to say what consumer demand responds to, because the conception of what makes a product "good" is inescapably cultural and contingent.

If we can be confident that worthless products will be weeded out, our confidence does not come from capitalism itself; it comes from other cultural forces that encourage faith in technology's progressive direction. Bad products do not prove capitalism is bad (I leave open the possibility of other proofs), but nothing about the way markets work guarantees good products.

Sharon -- We both have Paul to thank for the Gadget Index, which I liked as well. So I'll defer to him about the question of fractional measurements! Thanks for the nice words about the blog!

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 9/25/2004 11:10:00 PM : Permalink  

Caleb and Sharon,

I think that a fractional Gadget Index would be perfectly fine, at least as an average.


I agree that technological "progress" is culturally constructed, and I'm glad that you picked up on the "wealthy world" qualifier. There is very little about these gadgets that are essential, and yet at the same time they are essential to live a certain kind of life. We are shaped by our tools, and adjust ourselves to fit their needs--I think the very existence of the time clock makes that clear; I don't think anyone ever billed by the quarter-hour before the "modern" age.

That's not to say I don't see the modern age as desirable; I do, not least because we've gained a lot in the way of personal liberties, most importantly the liberty not to die at childbirth or in infancy. The wealth of choices residents of industrial cultures enjoy is also not something to be sneered at. You might find the beginning of this essay interesting: But I see no superiority, commonly defined, in today's civilizations--certainly I don't share in the discourse that sees all of history as leading up to Euro-American techno-political domination of the world.

We should also be clear: Tools aren't prized just for their functionality. As V. Postrel and others have argued, they are expressions of style as much as instruments for achieving our utilitarian goals. The stereotypical urban Japanese/S Korean/Chinese quest for the newest cell phone comes to mind--I think Wired still has a Japanese school girl fashion watch to find out what the coolest gadgets are.

Let me take this a bit further. We could have posited a 'gadget index' if we were Athenians in the fifth century B.C., and if anyone knows more about daily Attic life I'm sure they could supply us with some examples. But I do know that tools we don't even notice anymore, like mirrors or combs, were once as gadgety as PDAs are today. Instead of having a camera phone to show your wealth, you would have, in China for example, a jade mirror. And so we come full circle to the modern gadgets which are used as fashion, not just tools.

So what the Gadget Index measures is not just the technology we carry with us. Pens, wallets, and watches don't count, because those are no longer novel; only the new digital tools are included. But these gadgets may be chosen not for their utility but for their beauty--or their ability to spark wealth-envy in onlookers.

--Paul Musgrave

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/26/2004 07:01:00 PM : Permalink  

I find it hard to believe that NOTHING about the way markets work guarantees good products. It seems to me that you yourself have identified precisely what allows the markets to weed out the products we don't like--these are our cultural preferences, which find their most natural expression in the marketplace.

Sorry if I sound pedantic, but I do think this is an important distinction.

Posted by Blogger Jason Kuznicki on 9/26/2004 10:57:00 PM : Permalink  

Jason -- I stand by the line you quoted, but I would accentuate it differently: "Nothing about the way markets work GUARANTEES good products."

But your comment makes me realize that I should revise the first paragraph of my first comment. I should have said that markets respond to consumer demand, but consumers don't necessarily demand good products. The market gives us what we want, but what we want is not always the best product. Plus, one of the things demand is contingent on is how successful marketers are at convincing us we need their products. The market can't claim objectivity in selecting good products, because marketers are actively involved in the cultural construction of what makes products good.

My stating things this way reveals that I'm committed to a conceptual distinction between "good" products and the products that consumers prefer. I'll have to think much harder and would have to respond at greater length about how to defend such a distinction. But I assumed you shared my commitment to it, because you leave open the possibility that "worthless" products might sometimes be marketable, which depends on a product's worth being defined independently of its marketability.

The latter half of my post shows why I think it's important not to make our culture's preference for a product the necessary and sufficient condition for its being a "good" product. And I don't think coming up with other conditions requires a central planner; we can accept the market without accepting that it always chooses wisely.

I realize I may not have cleared things up; and if I have, I may merely have revealed a larger disagreement.

Paul -- Thanks for your reply and your original post. I didn't mean to "sneer" at the advantages of modern life in industrial societies; I only meant to critique the presumption that these advantages legitimize those societies' general worldviews, to the point that industrial societies are justified in embarking on imperial escapades. But I hope it was clear that I don't attribute that presumption to you. I admit I "used" your post as a springboard for a very different debate.

I really like your point about "style" versus "functionality." I think it's consistent with my argument that our consumption of certain technologies often has more to do with being conspicuous about our wealth than it does with the utility of the products themselves. A mirror is a mirror, after all, with or without jade. Just as a wheel is a wheel without chrome rims.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 9/27/2004 03:03:00 PM : Permalink  

Didn't mean to imply you were sneering; sorry myself.

I'm not sure it's going to be very easy to come up with a definition of "good" that's based on pure functionalism versus some sort of ornamentation; but I'll be interested to read about your efforts nonetheless.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 9/27/2004 04:03:00 PM : Permalink  

I'm curious about why you view marketing so negatively. I submit that if there were no marketing, our decisions about products would fall even further short of optimal. We wouldn't have any idea at all what to buy, rather than merely an imperfect idea as we now have.

As to the distinction between "good" products and those that the consumers prefer--are you sure that the former category does not merely contain the products that you WISH people would buy? Are you sure that "good" products aren't merely the products that you prefer? When I spoke of "worthless" products, I meant those that did not make money for the manufacturer, because their market value was found to be zero. I didn't mean that I considered them bad in some other sense.

Actually, my beliefs about mistaken consumer choices are fairly simple: The free market IS grossly inefficient. We end up manufacturing a lot of things we don't need. We even end up buying some things we don't need, not even for entertainment. These last products are merely mistakes, and we tend not to make the same mistake twice. Of course, we often make it once.

Here's the tricky part: Next to this inefficiency, virtually any other system is far, far worse.

Determining the individual needs of every consumer in a modern economy is by far the most difficult computational problem that humanity has ever encountered. It's harder than chess, multiplied by bridge, multiplied by go, multiplied by mah jong.

Asking for an guarantee that this problem will be solved is asking for way too much.

Instead, we've built a tremendously complex allocating program called the free market. We tinker with the program every so often, we give it inputs whenever we go to the store, and overall it gives halfway decent results.

At least, that's my take on it.

Posted by Blogger Jason Kuznicki on 9/27/2004 07:19:00 PM : Permalink  

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