Friday, January 27, 2006

Confessions of a gadget geek 

I am known to my friends as one of those "early adopters" of technology who has to have the latest, greatest toys. I have one of my breakfast friends who does the same thing, and his PDA with Bluetooth and a wireless connection typically beats my Treo for finding the name of the new woman on "24". (This one.) But mine grabs my office email and his can't, so there! I had to have the cool looking Vaio Z1 when they first came out, the first Touareg, the first house with wireless, etc. I know it's expensive. Why do I do that?

The answer comes, of all places, from Adam Smith, as Grant McCracken points out. He quotes from the Theory of Moral Sentiments.

A watch, in the same manner, that falls behind above two minutes in a day, is despised by one curious in watches. He sells it perhaps for a couple of guineas, and purchases another at fifty, which will not lose above a minute in a fortnight. The sole use of watches however, is to tell us what o'clock it is, and to hinder us from breaking any engagement, or suffering any other inconveniency by our ignorance in that particular point. But the person so nice with regard to this machine, will not always be found either more scrupulously punctual than other men, or more anxiously concerned upon any other account, to know precisely what time of day it is. What interests him is not so much the attainment of this piece of knowledge, as the perfection of the machine which serves to attain it.

How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number.

I'm busted! I have contemplated carpenter pants at work for just this reason (cooler, more metrosexual heads have prevailed) and so instead it seems sometimes my pants are about to fall off because there's four pounds of electronic crap in my pocket. But, McCracken explains, it's not even our fascination with "the perfection of the machine" that causes us to risk a wardrobe malfunction:

It is as if Smith is saying that there is something about the object that serves as an expression of its use, that it works, when we look upon it, as an anticipation of itself, as a kind of prediction of its efficacy. It's as if Smith is saying that we treasure the object, that we take pleasure in the sight of the object, because it is a time machine showing us what it can do.

The view of the object (watch or PDA) treats it as a statement of the owner's enablement or potentiality. And clearly the other Scottish philosopher was on to something. Objects add enablement to the owner. Without apology or hesitation, we claim this enablement as our own. Nice work, Mr. Smith. The utility is not (only) the function. The utility is not (only) the enablement. The utility is (also) that new confidence that in a world of astonishing complexity and dynamism, we are enabled.

Am I a gadget geek out of fear that I need more and more things to prevent the world from going too fast for me? I have a desktop at home and at my office that is cluttered (to be polite), and people often remind me of the phrase "a clean desk is the first sign of a terrified mind." I am never stressed about the desk because I manage paper flow rather well. I seldom miss appointments either. But from where comes the utility, the satisfaction, that we get from things that organize our work? I pay for the service that allows my phone to get my work email, and I do so out of my pocket. Am I just showing off? Or is it because I'm deathly afraid I'll miss that one email that will offer to change my life, but the offer good only for a moment? Or, is it to say to others (or myself?) that I can still master a complex world?

For those microeconomists who draw up utility functions and indifference curves, I wonder, how do you deal with such disparate sources of satisfaction? Your "feh"s invited to comments...