Good-enough tech

[2 September 2009]

By Rob Horning

Wired has an article by Robert Capps about what he has dubbed the “good-enough revolution”—basically meaning the way cheap netbooks with few features are replacing laptops. Rather than buying state of the art gadgets, people are beginning to buy tech products that are simpler to use and do enough to satisfy their basic needs. Seems sensible enough; actually it’s sad that this would constitute a “revolution” rather than common sense. “To some, it looks like the crapification of everything. But it’s really an improvement,” Capps notes, almost apologetically.

I admit that I sometimes find it hard to settle for what I know is good enough when it comes to tech; I tend to imagine what I could do with the various fancy features than remain realistic about what I actually will do. The gadgets are occasions for dreaming, especially at the point of consumption. Then, only after I own them do I feel overwhelmed by the learning curve and by the surfeit of opportunities. (It turns out I’m not really going to turn my computer into a TiVo after all. And I am not going to learn Avid.) But I bought an Eee netbook recently because I finallyfigured out that only certain features matter to me in a portable computer—size and battery life. And I already have a powerful home computer to handle what little heavy processing I have to do. So for me, going with “good enough” is contingent on already ahving a backload of tech I can’t use to its fullest capacity already.

Of course, established tech companies count on bells-and-whistles-induced obsolescence to fuel their growth, and if buyers begin to feel like yesterday’s gadgets are all they will ever need, the companies will be in trouble. And if Capps is right that getting something “good enough” rather than “new and improved” is becoming the default consumer mind-set, then a principal tenet of consumerism would appear to be under siege. It would seem to hearken the return of use value, and the culture-wide exposure of early adopters as the chumps they are. “It’s a reflection of our new value system. We’ve changed,” Capps decalres, stretching his idea to fit all sorts of efficiency measures undertaken across different industries, at which point hte concept becomes kind of meaningless. Any business wants to just enough to keep its customers happy; we figured out not to give away surplus value in a much earlier revolution. If consumers are content with less, then that is what they will get.

Tech is one thing, where new features are often superfluous and irrelevant to the core function—a bit like auto reverse on old cassette decks. But when consumers accept less in other areas, like health care, it may because of asymmetrical information. They don’t know they can get more or better. At a certain point, in order for the companies to get away with “good enough,” they have to bank on customers being ignorant, willfully or otherwise.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/good-enough-tech/