SOLOMON: Our Debt to New Media
Everywhere we turn, new technologies for communication have us surrounded. The online sensations of just a few years ago are now ancient cyber-history, and the process continues to accelerate. The computer on most desks seemed to be cutting-edge when it arrived -- but now is already on the verge of obsolescence.
When we decide that yesterday's breakthrough purchase has become today's outmoded albatross, we may gripe about the hassle and expense of upgrading to new systems. Sometimes, no doubt, we buy more for reasons of consumer vanity than practical functionality.
But the common determination to keep up with the (Digital) Joneses isn't mere status-seeking. As the Internet continues to gain momentum, we're apt to believe -- for good reasons -- that we must not be left behind. In professional and financial realms, those who lack access to the latest in techno-communication are likely to find themselves at a distinct disadvantage.
Wild as the last few years of computerized innovation may have seemed, the floodgates of products have only begun to open. Quickly multiplying, a wide range of permutations are available, blending such formerly separate entities as PCs, televisions, radios, CDs, videos, pagers, fax machines and cell phones.
Each day, news reports and advertisements trumpet the latest glories of cyberspace. Certainly, large numbers of people are benefiting from the swift correspondence and vast informational storehouse provided by e-mail and the World Wide Web. Americans are indebted to new media technologies -- but also, increasingly, in debt.
The costs of new high-tech products -- and related offerings such as online service, broadband connections, cable television and satellite TV -- all add up. For the average household budget, those kinds of expenses scarcely existed a decade or two ago. Today, they're likely to amount to thousands of dollars per year.
The cycle feeds itself. The more we get, the more uses we're apt to see for what we don't (yet) have. Constantly, the new media stoke the fires of consuming desire. The spiffiest, most heavily promoted and most trafficked websites encourage us to avail ourselves of marvels like streaming video, web TV and countless other latest things. All we've got to do is keep wanting and keep buying.
This pattern, according to routine media coverage, is marvelous progress -- to be fueled and applauded. The customary hype is filled with gee-whiz wonder. But we should be asking whether this business-driven avalanche of consumer technology products is a major factor in spiraling personal finance woes.
At a time when pundits constantly tell us that "the economy" is robust, the cash flow in plenty of homes is actually worse than ever. "Bingeing on a seemingly endless stream of easy credit, America's middle class is spending more and saving less than ever before," the Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 28. "And yet in many cases, the inevitable hangover takes years to develop, precisely, say some in the credit industry, because it's so easy these days to postpone the reckoning simply by borrowing more."
In late September, the Commerce Department announced another drop of the savings rate in the United States -- to the lowest level since 1959, when the agency began to collect such data. "With spending outpacing income, the amount of after-tax income left over after spending fell to a negative 0.4 percent," said a news dispatch from Reuters.
An economist at Wells Fargo Bank commented: "One concern I have is that consumers are highly leveraged, and when the economy slows and interest rates spike some day, it's going to really hurt consumers."
As communications technologies keep proliferating, the direct costs are just a fraction of the added burden on households. Pervasive in many lives, the new media are great at urging us to spend money on an ever-increasing array of glitz.
A new-media industry analyst sounded gleeful on CNN the other day when he explained that computers will become more and more like televisions, and vice versa. It is a huckster's vision of technological heaven. What it does for -- and to -- most of us is another matter.