Friday, 21 September 2012

Swag... how much would you pay for a good-looking hammer?

Does that ownership of the graphics rendering machine make people who don't do graphics rendering any better than they already are at things like, for instance... word processing, basic spreadsheets, browsing and e-mail?

The latest iToy should be shipping as you read this. This will come as some relief to the folks who started queuing eight days ago. So what's the big deal?

The press releases say it will be thinner and it will have a different processor. Aside from being a phone, it will have a camera, you will be able to watch movies, listen to music and read books. It also does internet and mail and all that. In other words, it's a thinner version of this particular phone that does the same stuff as other phones.

My mind seems to have slipped through a crack here. Why is it worth eight days in a queue?

There's a word out there, 'swag'. An item of swag is cool enough to give some people the ability to swagger around the place, as a token of their coolness bestowed upon them by owning the cool thing. The crack is still causing difficulties for me. What's wrong with walking normally? It really is just another phone.

Here's an analogy. A company offers gold plated hammers with LED flashes to indicate strikes on the nail head, special grips, impact resistant cores, all wrapped up in neat plastic branding, implying it will make you a better person. Carpenters and craftsmen settle for normal hammers. The people who buy the fancy hammers don't improve their craft. They just look like people who are willing to buy hammers at ten times the price, so that they can tell everyone they have better tools for carpentry.

Would you rather hire a craftsman or would you prefer to wave around an overpriced hammer and hire a craftsman on the sly?

Let's do that again in a different way. One popular brand of computer made its name with graphics rendering before graphics cards were inexpensive. Today those computers are becoming more common as people rush to buy them at a markup of about double the price of a normal entry level computer.

Does that ownership of the graphics rendering machine make people who don't do graphics rendering any better than they already are at things like, for instance... word processing, basic spreadsheets, browsing and e-mail?

What about the software that makes the graphics rendering machine a valuable proposition: professional layout, illustration and photo manipulation packages. It takes years to learn how to use that software with competence, and that excludes the craft of design.

Will the person who uses that machine stump for the hugely expensive software, grab some figurative mountaineering gear and head out on the very steep learning curve? Probably not. But if not a designer, whoever owns that software will expect you to accord them respect on the basis of ownership of the software.

Here comes the truly amazing bit. All of the money entailed in this ownership will have to be spent again, probably in less than two years. Rush out and buy now. Your potential purchase is aging already.

There used to be an expression, 'keeping up with the Jones'. That doesn't seem to be worth much anymore as we race to grab 'swag' or 'gear', anything to buy the implicit status, and keep ourselves amused and excited for a few short minutes. The problem is we enter into an arms race with ourselves in our quest for sensation, discarding or growing bored with what we had just a few days ago. It's the economics of lunacy.

If economics measures the value of what we have and produce, this insane consumerism makes it useless. The cost of the race for newness and sensation means that we cannot get full value for what we have. If we held onto things and used them better for longer we would get more value for them and the economics of consumerism would make a lot more sense.

My cynical side tells me to play the game, to tell people how wonderful I am by implying that I have all that, and watch who rushes out to buy. I'm not cut out that way. Actually what I feel is pity.

There has to be more to life than being able to claim ownership of mobile phones and computers that don't do much more for their owners that other gadgets can do cheaper.


  1. My husband avoids buying swaggish things by applying this thought process:
    1. It's expensive right now because it's new and everybody wants one, but soon it's going to come down in price as the novelty wears off. I'll wait until it gets cheaper.
    2. Oh, look - what did I tell you? It's much cheaper now...but that's because the Next Big Thing is due out soon to supersede it. I'll just wait for the Next Big Thing to come out.
    3. The Next Big Thing is here. Return to Step 1.