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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 eighteenth.’

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 than 2006.)

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 home computer.

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.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  the-times