Friday, April 8, 2011

Consumer Culture

From an economic point of view, we are all consumers. Our job is to buy stuff, to keep the wheels of Capitalism turning. Whether we're buying toilet paper or iPads, we're all just demographically appropriate targets.

I inherited an abiding appreciation for Consumer Reports magazine. My parents subscribed for as long as I can remember, and always kept back issues around the house. Many years' worth. I think the earliest ones had ratings of lanterns and horseshoes. They weren't as enticing as the stacks of National Geographics, but the collection of Consumer Reports certainly commanded respect. (Despite this lifelong relationship, however, we bought all our big ticket items ... cars, appliances, TVs ... entirely on impulse.  But that's another story.)

Consumer Reports is known for devising ways to test various products and get accurate, unbiased results. They build special machines that have simulated baggage handlers throwing luggage around, simulated feet wearing out shoes on a treadmill, simulated noses blowing through tissues, and so on.

And these machines give specific, measurable conclusions. "This suitcase fell apart after being stomped 47 times by our simulated gorilla." "This car rolled over at 62 mph on a turn of radius 75 yards, with a driver who had a blood alcohol level of 0.125 and an acne problem." "This toilet paper failed after ... well, it failed."  You can use these results to evaluate a product and make a buying decision.

But as the world of consumption gets increasingly digital, it becomes harder to develop tests like this.  Sure, they have simulated fingers pinching and stretching on iPad screens, and simulated couch potatoes watching high-def TVs. But in the long run, they have to rely more and more on subjective impressions.

They can compare memory and screen size and that kind of thing, but what we really want to know is: How often is it going to freeze up? How much work can I get done while my teenager is downloading TV shows and chatting on Facebook? What's the annual replacement cost when I fling it across the room because it refuses to open my files?

Or, more to the point, how soon will I need to buy the next version?

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