Indicators of Technology's Mainstreaming

I had originally planned to write this piece about the backgrounding of technology in my own life, when I came across an article in the Guardian today about changes in the "market basket" used by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) to calculate the cost of living in that country. Don't worry, I'll come back to my own situation in a minute.

Every month, the ONS examines the existing basket of goods and services to see if the items it includes properly reflects the economic lives of average consumers. About once a year, out-of-date items get tossed out in favor of those that better reflect the zeitgeist. For example, this year, the cost of fruit smoothies and muffins are now counted in the index, in favor of "stubbies" or short bottles of beer. Britons, surrounded in most high streets by newish cafes, are grabbing more bottled smoothies on the go, and picking up fewer packs of small beer bottles to drink in front of the television. Where does technology come into this picture? In a number of places: in the case of microwave ovens, their cost has fallen so much as to make them less valuable as indicators. Likewise, TV repair no longer counts because fewer people are taking their sets, mostly digital, in for a fix: with the decline of analog devices, repair services decline as well. It's cheaper to buy a TV one than get one fixed, an increasingly common situation with a lot of household technology.

Among the other casualties have been 35mm film cameras, which are being replaced by digital point-and-shoot devices and digital SLRs. Manual steering locks for cars are out, having been sidelined by automatic car locking devices. Also, thankfully, CD singles are out, reflecting the current hegemony of downloaded MP3s. One relic remains, though. CDs of so-called classic albums are still in. Some parts of the past we are reluctant to shed, sadly.

My own personal household technology revelation came when I purchased a replacement heart monitor watch last week: I realized not only was it my third in four years, it was the fourth in the household, and the 4th GPS-capable device I own (only one of which I actually use for location-finding). I am a reasonably early adopter, but not to the point of pathology. However, this moment of realization reminded me of a similar mental inventories in the past several years when I realized I had four or five devices capable of playing MP3s (now that's up to eight or nine, counting retired mobile phones), and before that realizing I had six or seven camera-bearing objects and five or six items capable of playing CDs.

The point is these technological functions creep into the household, sneaking in onboard products in which they may not be the main function. The cost of adding MP3, cameras, GPS, wireless heart monitoring, etc. has fallen to such a point with each of these "new" technologies that they just come as afterthoughts. And almost as quickly, they end up in desk drawers, ziplock bags, old briefcases, etc. Their cheapness creates a small scrapyard in my house of dormant technology, so cheap in fact I can afford to give it to the kids or just toss it out.

So, while we still cling to models that show a fairly linear conveyor belt of products hitting early adopters, then fast followers, then laggards, then the dollar store, we may need to reconsider the dynamics of technology penetration into homes. It may not be a question of convergence or fragmentation of functions, products and services, but a fairly steady rainfall of low-level tech into our lives, often riding along like a parasite on some other purchase.