Possibilities, Not Necessities

futurelab default header

by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I just finished walking through the exhibits at the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and my shopping list is blank.

I don’t need anything that I saw. 

It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I arrived at the show expecting the crowds to be less, the booths fewer or otherwise rendered less bright. The place cranked. Walls of TV screens with images so clear and crisp that they literally jumped off the glass. Music blared through woofers that made my shirt vibrate. Pedestals topped with gizmos of every shape and size. Spokesmodels perched behind greeting desks, bloggers ID’ing them via Twitter, and an endless stream of attendees strolling up one aisle, and down another.

And all I could think was so what? It was as if CES were some gargantuan ice cream shop, only all 31 flavors were slight variations of vanilla.

There were many examples of what was technically possible, but little if any of it appeared to be necessary. And no amount of bells, whistles, or tweets from the marketers seemed to recognize that distinction, let alone affect it.

Planned obsolescence is a business philosophy that is relied upon and practiced far more than it’s so labeled. Vance Packard (one of my heroes) popularized the term in the early 1960s to describe the guiding principle behind the mass production of Detroit’s automakers: the idea that consumers could be convinced to embrace superficial changes in appearance as innovation, and that the design and lifespan of cars would be such that they’d appear (and perform) old after 4-5 years.

This philosophy has impacted nearly every industry category, allowing companies to substitute fashion — and all of its attributes, like nuance, enhancements, additions, and variations — for the more functional attributes of performance, such as utility, relevance, and value over time.

And it worked, generally, until two factors changed: first, technology exploded, with cable television and the Internet giving consumers access to tons of information (and to one other), so the media command-and-control media mechanism for promoting fashion got diffuse, pricing got more transparent, and even the most exclusive product types started to trend toward a lower common denominator. Second, consumers got smarter and more cynical, both as a result of this newly-available technology, and also because of a generational shift that left memories of the good ‘ol mass media days to folks who are now grandparents, or worse.

So people couldn’t be told what to want as often as they developed lists of their own needs. The system isn’t perfect, and people don’t make smart, fact-based choices consistently, of course. But the hype machine that Packard ID’d almost 50 years ago has been grinding toward a halt for nearly the last ten.

Last year’s economic shock, and this year’s creeping malaise, just brought that underlying shift into sharper, pointed focus. It’s a matter of necessity now that folks are interested in buying things that they believe they need — for whatever reason(s) — and not so much excited about things that they’re simply supposed to want.

Which brings me back to CES last week.

Most of the products on display in Las Vegas were intended to trigger wants. A slightly better TV picture. A marginally thinner screen. A somewhat faster wireless connection. More storage. Smaller storage. Improvements in nearly every step required to handle or distribute digital content. All available in literally dozens, if not hundreds, of squint-one-eye-to-see-the-difference permutations. 

The conventional halls were filled with technologies that were certainly possible, but few that were really necessary. I didn’t chance upon a single device that made me say to myself "I’ve got to go throw that whatchamacallit away when I get home, and buy one of these gizmos to replace it!" Or "I didn’t know you could do that, and I really need to do it!"

I think the CE marketers have their work cut out for them this year.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/01/possibilities-not-necessities.html