Everywhere we turn, new technologies for communication have us
surrounded. The online sensations of just a few years ago are now ancient
cyber-history, and the process continues to accelerate. The computer on
most desks seemed to be cutting-edge when it arrived -- but now is already
on the verge of obsolescence.
When we decide that yesterday's breakthrough purchase has become
today's outmoded albatross, we may gripe about the hassle and expense of
upgrading to new systems. Sometimes, no doubt, we buy more for reasons of
consumer vanity than practical functionality.
But the common determination to keep up with the (Digital) Joneses
isn't mere status-seeking. As the Internet continues to gain momentum,
we're apt to believe -- for good reasons -- that we must not be left
behind. In professional and financial realms, those who lack access to the
latest in techno-communication are likely to find themselves at a distinct
Wild as the last few years of computerized innovation may have
seemed, the floodgates of products have only begun to open. Quickly
multiplying, a wide range of permutations are available, blending such
formerly separate entities as PCs, televisions, radios, CDs, videos,
pagers, fax machines and cell phones.
Each day, news reports and advertisements trumpet the latest
glories of cyberspace. Certainly, large numbers of people are benefiting
from the swift correspondence and vast informational storehouse provided by
e-mail and the World Wide Web. Americans are indebted to new media
technologies -- but also, increasingly, in debt.
The costs of new high-tech products -- and related offerings such
as online service, broadband connections, cable television and satellite TV
-- all add up. For the average household budget, those kinds of expenses
scarcely existed a decade or two ago. Today, they're likely to amount to
thousands of dollars per year.
The cycle feeds itself. The more we get, the more uses we're apt
to see for what we don't (yet) have. Constantly, the new media stoke the
fires of consuming desire. The spiffiest, most heavily promoted and most
trafficked websites encourage us to avail ourselves of marvels like
streaming video, web TV and countless other latest things. All we've got to
do is keep wanting and keep buying.
This pattern, according to routine media coverage, is marvelous
progress -- to be fueled and applauded. The customary hype is filled with
gee-whiz wonder. But we should be asking whether this business-driven
avalanche of consumer technology products is a major factor in spiraling
personal finance woes.
At a time when pundits constantly tell us that "the economy" is
robust, the cash flow in plenty of homes is actually worse than ever.
"Bingeing on a seemingly endless stream of easy credit, America's middle
class is spending more and saving less than ever before," the Wall Street
Journal reported on Sept. 28. "And yet in many cases, the inevitable
hangover takes years to develop, precisely, say some in the credit
industry, because it's so easy these days to postpone the reckoning simply
by borrowing more."
In late September, the Commerce Department announced another drop
of the savings rate in the United States -- to the lowest level since 1959,
when the agency began to collect such data. "With spending outpacing
income, the amount of after-tax income left over after spending fell to a
negative 0.4 percent," said a news dispatch from Reuters.
An economist at Wells Fargo Bank commented: "One concern I have is
that consumers are highly leveraged, and when the economy slows and
interest rates spike some day, it's going to really hurt consumers."
As communications technologies keep proliferating, the direct
costs are just a fraction of the added burden on households. Pervasive in
many lives, the new media are great at urging us to spend money on an
ever-increasing array of glitz.
A new-media industry analyst sounded gleeful on CNN the other day
when he explained that computers will become more and more like
televisions, and vice versa. It is a huckster's vision of technological
heaven. What it does for -- and to -- most of us is another matter.
Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His books include "The Trouble
With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."