LLOYD GRAY: Falling for the next big thing

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Twenty-two years ago at another newspaper in another Mississippi city, I regularly asked a co-worker to borrow her electronic hand-held calculator. She got tired of the annoyance, and instead of simply telling me to buzz off, she went out and bought a $5.99 Radio Shack hand-held calculator and handed it to me.
She smiled cheerily, but the message was clear: Now you’ve got your own, so quit asking for mine.
Today that calculator sits on my desk at home and I use it all the time. It’s not stylish or up-to-date, but it works just fine for my purposes. I like the feel of the keypad better than the touch-screen calculator on my smart phone. I also admire the fact that it has held up all these years without the slightest blip in service. Why get rid of it?
Why, indeed. In just the last 10 years or so, I’ve owned at least five different cell phones, not to mention three different desk top computers, and in just the last two years, two different tablet computers.
Can they all do something the previous one couldn’t? Of course. Am I better off, or more productive, or is life easier, because of it? That’s doubtful.
Yet somehow we’ve bought in to the idea that we can’t do without the latest thing, whatever it is. The art of marketing gadgets and gizmos – which consists largely of convincing people to buy something they don’t need and probably can’t afford – has reached unparalleled heights of sophistication and effectiveness. And we succumb, afraid that we’ll miss something or be left behind or be thought of as hopelessly out-of-touch.
Apple under Steve Jobs didn’t do much market research because it was creating products that people didn’t know they wanted or needed. That’s why for Apple it was, and is, all about marketing: Creating a demand that never existed, not responding to a demand already there. Once you start doing that, anticipation of the next big thing becomes a built-in marketing mechanism, a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t depend on there being anything particularly big about that next big thing.
That’s marketing genius, no doubt. Yet most of us don’t stop to think about how that manipulation works, and how completely so many of us fall for it.
There’s an old saying that the only difference between men and boys is the size of their toys. These days, many of the men’s toys are not only likely to be as small as the boys’ toys, in many cases they’re one and the same.
Could it be that a fundamental difference between men and boys – or women and girls – is, or ought to be, an ability to recognize hype? Or to discern between what is truly functional, useful and valuable in a product and what is aimed chiefly at our anxieties or ego needs? In other words, shouldn’t we adults be a little more mature about such things?
Unlike my up-to-date smart phone, which tells me I am with it and sophisticated, that 22-year-old Radio Shack calculator is good for nothing other than its overtly intended purpose – doing math. That’s not to say the smart phone doesn’t do a lot of helpful things, yet it’s hard to imagine what else that phone could do that would make it any more useful to me than it already is.
Yet at this moment there are people thinking of ways to convince me otherwise when they’re ready to launch the next big thing. Will I fall for it? If I can keep that old calculator in full view, maybe not.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.