The New Essentials?

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.


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I'd like to point out that the internet provides something that precious few real-world communities do - the ability to meet people without power imbalances. Online, nobody knows you're not white, not middle-class, homeless, etc. unless you choose to tell them. Most people represent themselves true to life, but in a new venue, first impressions are often made 'blind'. I speculate, but currently have no data to back up, that those lasting first impressions are likely to be more favorable of assorted disadvantaged people than after an otherwise equivalent face-to-face meeting.

By Andrea G. (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

I like that you included political voyeurism as one of the escapist activities - even those of us who don't do movies, alcohol, or virtual reality games need escape too :-)

I gave my bulk order of Nation of Farmers to my CSA a few weeks ago and they raffled three copies at their open house last week. Not sure what they'll do with the rest - I hope they put some out at the market for browsers to buy.

Good luck with the Memorial Day family workshop next week - sounds like loads of fun!

By Christina (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

I haven't had a laptop since I spilled beer on mine several years ago. We gave up the internet and landline at home in August of 2008. Still have the desktop but without internet connection seldom turn it on. I've never had a cell phone and for nearly two years now have had no phone at all. There's no one I care to call and no one cares to call me. If my employer didn't provide me with computer & internet access I'd be completely off line. I kinduv wish I didn't have access at work. I prefer being outside. I'm certainly over-educated but if I had it to do over I wouldn't have wasted my time with formal education. I would've learned practical skills instead. I would trade knowing how to amplify DNA in a PCR machine, for instance, for knowing how to weld proficiently. Community is something I usually seek to escape from, not into. Tomorrow we massacre this year's cockerels. Not something I'm looking forward to.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

i go back and forth with myself on just what impact the internet and widespread availability of net-connected devices like netbooks is yet going to have, as and when the economy worsens and various finite resources start running out. i honestly don't know if they'll be more of a help or more of a hindrance.

on the one hand, they're nonessentials in the sense that we got along fine without them for centuries, up until very recently indeed. but on the other, they're genuine game-changers for how people communicate and how social interactions function, and the flexibility they add there might make them more useful than not. they've changed how our daily lives are lived more dramatically than any other single invention since the telephone --- possibly since the printing press --- and i'd like to imagine we're smart enough to turn some of those changes into net advantages when we really need to.

as a professional programmer i'd like it if the 'net helped us adapt to a dramatically different, and poorer, future, for instance by reducing our need for physical travel and allowing us to retain some sort of long-distance --- even global --- connectivity in an era of increasingly small-scale, local interactions. it'd make my personal future a lot better, to be sure. but it can't be denied that these devices are expensive in many ways, even if they can (currently) be bought cheaply enough; the infrastructure and maintenance costs they demand can't stay hidden forever, and i wonder if it'll some day prove too great.

LCDs save energy (and space, and weight, thus enabling mobile devices) by using much less electricity. at the cost of needing more rare earth elements, which are called rare for a very literal reason. and they aren't being recycled nearly well enough, at present. and that's just one example, when the entire industry could be said to be built out of similar examples.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

I wonder if people are keeping books to re-read more. (If a story is worth reading, it is worth re-reading. If it isn't worth re-reading - are you interested in the story, or the social cache of "Yeah, I read that!"?)

Are music lessons getting more popular, yet, or are MP3 and iPod sales still titillating the RIAA moneybags. (Not that I have any strong opinions. Grr.) Are people looking for sheet music, both the old standards and the current songs? Do many people know that you can buy sheet music, and learn to play favorite melodies? That you can even buy your own copy of your worship hymnal, and learn those tunes and pieces, to carry with you through the day, and to share while waiting for red lights and the line at Burger King? (Oops. I might be sharing too much now. Yes, I do keep a soprano recorder on the passenger seat. An Aulos 803s, easier to play and sounds OK. The Yamaha ivory "student" model is in the truck. Go ahead, try the "Mixolydian" tune - 8 notes, easy to learn, recognizable and nifty at any time. Or "Old Hundredth" - a melody fitted to any number of hymns in my Lutheran hymnal. The Doxology, too.) I about wore out my "Beatles for Recorder", my "Hymns for Recorder" has seen a bunch of wear. "Paul Simon for Recorder" is a bit tougher to learn, but Boxer, and I am an Island are fun. Or piano books - just pick out the melody line and play that on the recorder.

I wonder if people are keeping books to re-read more.

i certainly do. i'm not sure if i'll end up keeping them electronically or dead-tree more, in the future, though. currently i lean heavily towards real printed books, but the right e-reader might yet change that; a thousand books fit so much more handily on a flash disk than on bookshelves.

Are music lessons getting more popular, yet, or are MP3 and iPod sales still titillating the RIAA moneybags.

i don't think recorded music in any format has much impact on the desire (or opportunity) to learn a real instrument. the investment needed for each is just too dramatically different. live music is good, but getting good at performing it is a much bigger deal than deciding what manner of recorded music to purchase.

more likely the split will be (already is?) between CDs and MP3s. i still prefer physical CDs, myself, but that's mostly because i have an unreasonable liking for liner notes; if your average downloadable MP3-format album came with a PDF of the liner insert, well...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

Hmmmm.....Off the top of my head, my current list of things I wouldn't want to be without would start with:
treadle sewing machine
spinning wheel
knitting needles
water filter/purifier
wind up radio/light
tool box of hand tools...

well, at least in the case of internet and computers (not necessarily portables though; those are only important if I ever actually want to leave the house :-p ), they are essential to my job, since I do CGI and sell it on the internet.

But I don't have a phone (haven't for years), and I'm getting my education for free (or I wouldn't be getting one at all. this is really not something I can afford taking huge loans out for; it won't pay off)

As for the escapism... books. Every community has a library, and I generally satisfy most of my escapist needs with good, old-fashioned dead-tree literature.

also, I remember Sharon touched on this this before, and it also came up on other blogs: there's actually a lot of escapism that doesn't require wasting resources and consumerism, but at the moment these things have a massive social stigma attached to them (and in some cases are even illegal). There's plenty of escapism to be had on the cheap by having lots of (protected!)sex, getting high(from pot you grow in your personal garden ;-) ), and loitering on street-corners with friends.

But only those dirty jobless, lazy hippies/kids/streetpunks do that, amiright?

As a musician I can say that, in my area, times are tighter for performers and teachers than ever in my professional involvement with music (roughly 25 years). When times are tough, music and art programs are some of the first on the chopping block. With less support in schools and public programs, my colleagues who play and teach feel it keenly. While it may be true that individuals are choosing to pick up a recorder or strap on their dancing shoes, instruction in or performance of music or dance is something that fewer people are willing to pay for.

By auntieintellectual (not verified) on 21 May 2010 #permalink

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."