Samsung’s unveiling of a ‘future proof TV’ this week at the world’s most celebrated tech jamboree – the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – must have been pulled off with a wry grin. When I bought my previous home desk top PC some years ago I chose one with expansion slots so that I could add memory and functionality or swap out the processor board if I felt the need to upgrade. Unsurprisingly, when that urge came upon me what I actually did was to unplug it, shift it to a corner and go and buy a shiny new computer. Because that’s what most consumers do. And it is fortunate that we do.
Japan’s consumer tech leadership in the 1980s was fuelled largely by a domestic population with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the latest gadgets. Second-hand (or pre-owned) had no Japanese translation, by all accounts. This meant that corporations could invest in product development with confidence that anything with novel functionality – faster, smaller, more features – would sell. And, having developed these products backed by a guaranteed return at home, they could happily sell them in US and Western European countries where they would be sure to have a lead on their local competitors.
All this has been underpinned by the astonishing innovation and problem solving skills of the electronics industry, which has risen to every challenge brought to its door – or, more accurately, that it has sought out. The result is that the price of consumer goods has fallen consistently in real terms over the past three decades making the most remarkable technological wizardry available to almost every household in the developed economies. The fact that we, the public, just use it to timeshift reality TV soaps, watch them in 3D and then discuss them via social networks on our smartphones is not the fault of the technologists.
So, should we feel guilty about the banal use of all this impressive technology? Not at all because, elsewhere, the same underlying blocks are being used to deliver better tools for medical care, safer cars and cleaner and more efficient energy systems from which we will all benefit. And that’s why no one really wants a future proof TV.