This list popped up on my screen this morning, and I thought it was an interesting window into a worldview. The article lists ten things that despite the economy, we aren’t cutting back on:
Portable computers. The iPad might be the latest must-have gizmo, but the power of computers transcends trendiness. Brianna Karp, for instance, discovered lots of homeless people online, many logging in through their own laptops, like her. Shipments of notebooks have skyrocketed over the last three years, with sales in 2010 likely to be double what they were in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Part of the jump comes from cheap netbooks, but portable computers of all sizes are becoming ubiquitous as we socialize, communicate, shop, get our news and increasingly live our lives online. Desktop sales, meanwhile, have been on a steady decline, as mobility trumps stability.
High-speed Internet access. Lots of people have cut back on cable TV, telephone service, and even gas and electricity usage. But once you’ve got high-speed Internet access, you don’t go back. In a Pew Research Center survey from last year, high-speed Internet was one of only three things people said was more of a necessity in 2009 than in 2006. Appliances like microwaves, clothes dryers and dishwashers, by contrast, were considered less essential in 2009 than they used to be. And data from the Telecommunications Industry Association shows that the rapid increase in broadband Internet subscribers barely slowed in 2008 or 2009. By 2013, more than 90 percent of all Internet connections in the United States will be high-speed.
Smart phones. Overall sales of cell phones dipped for the first time ever in 2009. But sales of smart phones–which can handle email, browse the Internet and do a variety of other things–rose by 7 percent, according to TIA. And sales could surge by 25 percent this year, as people who have been putting off mobile upgrades finally nab the iPhone or Blackberry of their dreams. Like portable computers, smart phones have become a lifeline for the harried multitaskers we pretend we’re not.
Education. As Kevin and Deanna Daum were spiraling toward bankruptcy in 2009, they decided they could live without their two cars, their two residences, and most niceties. But they insisted on keeping up tuition payments for their son, then a senior at a private high school. Many Americans seems to feel likewise. While data doesn’t readily show how much families spend on schooling, many families say they’ve given up other things in order to protect their kids’ education, whether it’s private school or college, tutoring, enrichment programs or school-related activities. Private school enrollments fell by less than one percent from 2008 to 2010, and college enrollments have gone up over the last couple of years. That’s partly because jobs are scarce, but also because Americans simply value education. “This is an investment that pays off very well,” says Sandy Baum, an economist at the College Board. “People are willing to borrow for it and they know that it’s shortsighted to forego it.”
I’m not sure I think all of these things have quite the same impact – I think that the culture simply hasn’t begun to adapt to the fact that the future for someone with huge student loans is different than it was a decade or two decades ago. I’m not convinced that borrowing huge sums for education is a long term reality. But I do think that most people would rather give up most things than internet and computer access – for both professional and personal reasons.
Others things on the list, like movies, alcohol and music are unsurprising – these are exactly the sort of escapist cultural items that do well in tough times. And I suspect that’s a more primary reason for the internet service, smart phones and laptops as well, actually. It is possible to do a credible job search while regularly checking the internet at the local public library. But for true internet escapism, you have to have a computer to pursue your own particular internet niche – to socialize on facebook, play World of Warcroft, Second Life or Farmville, to read the latest political info and express your outrage – these things are an escape in many ways from hard reality.
And this is a useful and interesting point to me – because we tend to talk about retrenchment and the elimination of non-essentials as though you can dump everything that doesn’t immediately apply to food, air and shelter. But that’s not true, and there’s no evidence it ever will be – the poorer we get, we need escape more, not less. That’s why movies and gin – and religion, and card playing and social groups – tend to flourish it tough times. And this means we’re never going to eliminate all the “waste” in the system – we’re never going to reallocate all the oil to agriculture, because too many people want to watch movies (this is a wild oversimplification, and I’m not implying that such a things is necessary, merely addressing the observation that people make that “oh, we have enough to do X” if we just…)
Most of us need to escape sometimes. The question become at what cost that escape comes. That is, we can escape into community – into social pleasures in the real world – if we have one. The advantage of this is that in many cases, a community escape can spread costs around and make them fairly minimal – it isn’t that hard to put together a potluck, or that costly for any one person or household. If not, we must maintain the technologies that allow us to escape into the virtual world, because in the absence of something material, we will have to allocate an increasingly large share of our resources to our technological essentials.