The strangest thing happened to me the other day. I went into a branch of PC World and found nothing to buy.
I have left PC World empty-handed before, but only through an act of will. Occasionally I would steel myself not to buy anything before I went in, treating the trip as a test of my resolve, rather as Gandhi shared his bed with young women to test his self-control. This time it was different. I simply could not see anything left to want.
Usually, we technophiles are obsessed with what’s coming next. Faster, smaller, lighter, thinner. Yet, for all our neophilia, the fact remains that to enjoy 95 per cent of the benefits of the technological revolution you need own no more than the following: 1) a fairly basic mobile phone with a dependable battery and tolerably large keys; 2) a half-decent wifi-enabled laptop; 3) a home broadband connection; 4) some kind of digital television along with a painless means of recording it; 5) a simple digital camera; 6) sat-nav; 7) a credit card.
If you already have number seven you can probably buy the other six for around £1,000.
I might add the iPod or the Wii to this list. And, in a few years’ time I shall surely be adding the electronic book. But that may be all. Which raises an interesting possibility — what if there is no ‘next big thing’? Progress is uneven, after all. In the 120-year history of the car, the momentous advances all happened fairly early on: for all the refinements of the last 80 years, the gap between travelling on foot and riding in a Model-T Ford is far wider than the gap between the Model-T Ford and a modern saloon.
Perhaps we should spend less time wondering about the future and more time in wonder at what we already have. Certainly that’s the message of the splendid Boston comedian Louis CK from his appearance on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show (http://snipr.com/ebjvl; and, if you watch nothing else on YouTube this week, watch this).
But also give some thought to where your gratitude lies. On an economics blog this week a reader complained that ‘We are all making the mistake of paying tribute to “technology” for these wonderful achievements when really they have been brought to us by competitive free markets and globalisation.’
He’s right, isn’t he? It’s not the technology of the mobile phone that’s remarkable so much as the fact that we can all afford one. The first billion mobile phones took 20 years to sell worldwide. The second billion were sold in four years. The third billion were sold in two years. It’s not technology that is doing that — it’s markets.
The world’s elites have always had access to wonderful things. What’s new today is the speed at which the exclusive becomes near-universal. One reason it’s so hard to make a Bond film nowadays is because the kind of travel destinations and gadgetry that once made the films glamorous are now offered in shop windows on every provincial high street.
The economist was right. It’s free markets that are behind this miracle, not ‘technology’. Markets have had a rotten press recently, so let’s not rob them of the credit they deserve.