Saturday, July 21, 2001

Things You Didn't Know You Needed

In this consumer culture, there is little that you want that you can't buy. From summer homes to toilet bowl cleaners, from golf balls to remote control garage door openers, from sports socks to pre-moistened towelettes, it's out there just waiting for you. Even better, you can not only imagine it, you can find a company willing to deliver it to you overnight for $39.95 plus shipping and handling.

But just because it exists doesn't mean that you need it. Take, for instance, the bloat that has occurred in word processing programs, especially in light of the proliferation of email. On the rare occasions that most folks need to compose a printable document, it's liable to be a letter to your kid's second grade teacher, or a sign up sheet for the club tennis tournament. The firepower to do that can be contained in a program capable of fitting on a floppy disk. Yet, installing Microsoft Word... the program alone... requires 100 megabytes of more. That's more memory than my first three computers put together. And all of that so that I have the ability to generate a Table of Authorities, spell check a passage in Norwegian Nynorsk, or Parse numerical data into table format. Can you check your online thesaurus for synonyms for the word "overkill?"

There are lots of other cases where the technological envelope is being pushed for no good reason, other than that the design engineers wanted to strut their stuff. Just look at the functions available on your cell phone. Or the cooking options on your microwave. Or the buttons festooning your TV remote. In each case, a couple of controls would probably suffice: on, off, a number pad and a few "up-down" controls. But beyond that? I mean, let's be honest: do you really understand timed auto-defrost, let alone ever use it? I thought not.

The result is that you see ad campaign after ad campaign touting things you never knew you needed. Of course, the trick is to convince you that you do. With technology, that's usually a matter of creating a "wowy-zowy" phrase and tying it to an incomprehensible nom de guerre. Does Intel sell a "speedy central processing unit?" Sort of, but it prefers to come at it a different way. And so you see circulars touting a "lighting fast Pentium IV." The message is clear: when those emails start coming hot and heavy, you've go to have this kind of firepower in your foxhole.

This approach works with everyday mundane items as well. For instance, we all know we need tires for our cars. For most of us, they must be round and made of rubber, and have some kind of tread capable of holding the road. The only other relevant detail is the price. Past that, unless you're an automotive engineer, it's all wasted. But a glance at the newspaper can still generate all kinds of insecurities. Do I really need circumferential and lateral grooves? How about hundreds of tread notches and wider shoulder blocks? And can I live without Individual tread blocks stabilized with special tie bars? If I don't have them, will my kids still be able to get into the college of their choice?

Beyond that there are the items that are trying to convince you that they're breaking new ground. Take, for instance, that nagging problem you have in the morning or at the office watering hole when you go to make a pot of coffee. The first thing you have to do is grab a new filter out of the stack. Normally, these thin, absorbent pieces of paper stick together. What's a mother to do? Well, you could lick your finger, or blow on the edge of the stack, or take a handful out and put back the excess. Or you could run right down to your local grocery store and pick up the "Coffee Filter Separator." Styled like a pair of plastic ice tongs, these $1.69 beauties enable you to... well... pick up and separate coffee filters. How have you lived your life without them?

Or let's say your getting all dolled up for a big night out and want to put on your favorite bracelet, but your significant other is nowhere to be found. It means that you have to come to terms with the fact that while evolution has left us with opposable thumbs, it has not graced us with fingers long enough to reach our wrists. In a stunt akin to threading a needle with one hand, you try and try to make the catch work to no avail. Enter the "Bracelet Buddy," an $8.95 stalk of faux gold plastic with an alligator clip on the end. Using it, you can steady the clasp, buckle yourself in, and head off to the ball.

Finally, let's say you're lying in bed late at night and hear a strange noise downstairs. You ease out from under the covers and grab your trusty 9 iron in one hand and Mickey Mouse flashlight in the other. That way, should you actually encounter an intruder, you can either take a chip shot at his head, or show him how Mickey's smile lights up. But that's a tough choice. Better you should have the "Safety Bat." At just $59.95, this 30 inch long hardwood bat is identical to the one that the Babe used... except there is a flashlight located in the end. So now you can poke around with both hands, confident that if you swing for the bleachers, you'll see your cat before you club him.

Do you really need any of this? While some of it might be moderately useful, odds are you could live without it. After all, it was Sir Terrence Conran, the British designer, who noted that "Arguably, the only goods people need these days are food and nappies."


Marc Wollin of Bedford finds the only things he must have are his Swiss army knife and his aspirin. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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