Tools and toys

We are a nation obsessed by toys.  

In recent decades, we’ve built an economy based, to a remarkable degree, on inventing and marketing electronic playthings.  The latest cell-phone and tablet computer; thousands of apps; and the ever-changing world of social media – all masquerade as tools.

But that’s not why we buy them.  Not why the media  obsesses over them.  Not why the stock market makes billionaires of bright youngsters whose start-ups have yet to turn a profit.
We like to think of our electronic devices as tools, because it makes us seem like serious adults.  But, in strictly utilitarian terms, the technological revolution could have ended a decade ago.  Today’s new features and applications are – for the most part – about entertainment and the thrill of owning the latest thing.

Our tools are becoming toys.

Consider the cell-phone.  Since these devices shrunk from the size of a brick to something you could hold in your palm, their utility as tools of communication has been unquestionable.  But the more recent features – from built-in cameras to their ability to run games, screen videos, and connect to social media – are essentially frivolous.   

To be sure, there are fast-moving, professionals who need the ability to call up documents, study designs, or access shifting markets in real-time.  But for every such professional, using the latest device as a tool, there are a hundred middle and high school students using similar devices as distractions.

And another hundred adults using them to keep the world continuously informed about what they had for lunch, what new item of clothing they’ve purchased, or the latest small triumph in their child’s march toward the ever-receding goal of maturity.

Like television in the ‘50s, the internet initially seemed to hold out enormous promise as a means of educating and informing the citizens of our democracy – and of raising our cultural standards.

Like television, the internet seems to have become, instead, a means of selling things, while reducing the common discourse to an ever-lower common denominator.

Fortunately, perhaps, there are signs of market saturation.  A quick look at your personal e-mail account will probably reveal that eight or nine of every ten messages is from someone other than a personal friend or business contact.  Most, indeed, are now advertisements.

On your Facebook newsfeed, serious discussion has long since disappeared, and the unique, personal post is becoming rare.  Much of the content is now forwarded material – too often including quotations misattributed to someone who never said any such thing.  

Of course, for every social medium or online game which becomes old hat, several others appear to vie for attention.  But the floodtide of trivia, foolishness, and – above all – advertising threatens to swamp the net.  

And what happens when that time comes?  

In the 1920s, the stock market soared to record heights – largely on the strength of the telephone, the radio, and the automobile.  But over time, all three products reached market saturation.

If you had a phone, you didn’t need a new one.  Same with a radio.

And, while automobile manufacturers gradually learned to introduce new models every year, many Americans – quite sensibly – regarded their cars as means of transportation, not toys.  Once you had one, you worked to keep it in good repair, and that was that.

As a result, the stock market – booming on the sale of new products – grew shaky.  Sales of new products fell sharply once almost every American – except the very poor – had bought a radio, a car, and a telephone.  

The Great Crash followed.

Today, it might seem incredible that the electronics and internet bubble will ever reach market saturation.  But history offers a warning.

Your smart-phone might have dozens of  features unavailable on my $50 TracFone, but I can make calls and text, and that’s 99 percent of what I’d do if I owned the latest thing.  

Your iPad might be several pounds lighter, and much faster, than my battered old Dell laptop – which is, quite literally, held together with black electrical tape.  But I use my laptop primarily for communication, research and writing – and watching the occasional DVD.  It’s quite fast enough for that.

Moreover, I’m starting to spend less and less time on-line.  There’s just not much there – other than far too many ads.

And – here’s the point – I don’t think I’m alone.  

The greatest sales appeal of new electronic devices – or new social media – is their novelty.  But the novelty is beginning to wear off, even with my generation.  And for younger people, who grew up in the electronic age, there’s really nothing novel about it at all.

So here’s the question:  What if our society reaches the point where the latest device, or app, or new social medium is greeted with a shrug?  

With an economy built largely upon toys, what happens when that happens?

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