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The Times ran this column by me last week:
When burglars broke into Vodafone's Basingstoke exchange early
on Monday morning, they plunged half of southern England into the
dark ages. Desolate and desperate figures shuffled through the
drizzle wearing sack-cloth and mortifying their flesh in expiation
of the sins that had brought this calamity upon them. It did no
good and for several long hours the horror continued: blackberries
were silent, mute, lifeless.
Is a mobile signal a luxury or a necessity? It would have been
unwise to lecture one of Monday's deprived souls on the astonishing
marvel of being able to communicate through the ether at all, let
alone window-shop the world's information bazaar virtually for free
at the speed of light. `Just be grateful that it sometimes works'
is not a line that placates me when I lose a mobile signal.
To be deprived of broadband because of living in a remote rural
area is now sufficient reason for the subsidy power of the state to
be brought to bear on your behalf to right this human wrong.
Broadband, like mobile communication, is on the cusp of changing
from luxury to necessity. This is a normal trajectory for
technologies, a path travelled by the flush toilet, the washing
machine, the car, electricity, the telephone and the television.
Even the potato, the tomato and perhaps soon the avocado pear have
undergone this transformation from exotic to staple.
Take cotton underwear. In the 1700s only the very rich
could afford it, but in the first decades of the next century, the
rising income of the average British worker met the rapidly falling
cost of mechanically woven cotton cloth and suddenly everybody
could afford to wear (and wash) cotton next to their skin for the
first time. The historian Edward Baines noted in 1835 that the
'wonderful cheapness of cotton goods' was now benefiting the 'bulk
of the people': 'a country-wake in the nineteenth century may
display as much finery as a drawing room in the
The capitalist achievement, reflected Joseph Schumpeter a
century later, 'does not typically consist of providing more silk
stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory
girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.' Or take
artificial light. In 1800, on the average wage you would have to
work for six hours to afford candles that would burn for an hour
with the brightness of a modern 18-watt compact fluorescent bulb.
Today, you have to work for less than half a second on the average
wage to afford such a quantity of light - and it comes without
smoke, wick-trimming or high fire risk. Artificial light is now a
necessity, but was once a luxury.
For 40 years the Pew Research Center has been asking
people in America what they consider necessities or luxuries,
chronicling this transformation. A car has been considered a
necessity by about 80% of people all along, and a clothes dryer by
more than half of people for the same length of time. Home air
conditioning, thought a necessity by just 26% of people in the
early 1970s, was a necessity for more than half of Americans by
2006, the same year that a home computer just squeaked into being
thought a necessity by a slim majority. (The recession's austerity
temporarily reversed some of these trends with all four
technologies being though a necessity by smaller majorities in 2009
But the Pew survey also found that some technologies are
moving in the reverse direction, from necessity to luxury. By 2010,
just 62% of people considered a telephone landline a necessity, and
just 42% a television. Note that neither of these have become
luxuries because of scarcity or cost, but because newer
technologies have made them superfluous: the mobile phone and the
I would venture to suggest that there is no technology
that has ever gone from necessity to luxury because of growing
scarcity. Stone tools? No shortage. Whale oil? Never a necessity.
Firewood? Made obsolete by central heating. This is a one-way
street. The only way a necessity stops being a necessity is when it
is superseded by a better one.
None the less, we feel regret at each new technological
dependence. We crackberry addicts are learning how to manage our
habit, now that email is a necessity, but there are times on
holiday when we - or our spouses - look back in fondness on the
memories of weeks spent doing something different without so much
as a letter from home.
Even more nostalgic, in some ways, is the memory of the
early days of a technology, when it was still a delicious luxury:
like when a scallop, a mango or a seasonal strawberry was so rare
that it was a special event. One day in May 1985, I sat down
beneath a Giant Sequoia tree in the morning sunshine somewhere in
the Sierra Nevada of California and tapped out an article on a
little Tandy hand-held computer-thingie, just because I could. It
had a screen the size of my thumb across which scrolled a few words
of text that I could correct as I wrote.
The battery soon ran out, but the sheer liberating joy of that
moment lives with me still: I could now take work into the woods so
why ever go to an office again? Little did I realise - when back at
my motel that evening I plunged the receiver of the bedside
telephone into a device apparently designed for milking a two-teat
cow and listened in awe as my text squealed through the `acoustic
modem' straight to London - that I would one day come to see my
inability to escape my emails as a curse as well as a blessing.