iPhone lust: Harnessing gizmo madness in the smartphone era: Don Pittis

There is something about new technology like the iPhone that makes people go a little crazy. And while the impulses that motivate our desire for the latest consumer technology are mysterious, economically speaking, they may be a force for good, Don Pittis writes.

Never-ending technological race is the economic gift that keeps on giving

After Apple launched its latest iPhone, it is worth examining our collective passion for gizmos and its effect as a powerful driver of the modern economy, Don Pittis says. (Reuters)

There is something about new technology that makes people go a little crazy. And while the impulses that motivate our desire for the latest consumer technology are mysterious, economically speaking, they may be a force for good.

Just after Apple put us through its latest manipulative product launch for the iPhone, it is worth examining our collective passion for gizmos and its effect as a powerful driver of the modern economy.

Donald Mustard, CEO of Epic Games, makes a point during the introduction of the new iPhone 5s in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 10, 2013. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

And the impact is huge. Smartphone sales are on track to hit one billion this year, according to the industry analyst IDC. That's up from 500 million last year, with sales projected to hit 1.7 billion smartphones by 2017.

This is annual sales we are talking about. So if the projections are right, within five years there will be approximately one smartphone for every one of the seven  billion people on the planet. All this is for a product that costs hundreds of dollars. Hundreds times billions — the multiples are astounding.

Sales of the product are only one part of the economic bonanza. The battle to make the newest and best product creates a virtuous convergence of research and invention.

Competitors, even those who are ultimately unsuccessful, invest hundreds of millions in research. Ideas that arise, whether from companies or individuals, fly around the world to be tried and applied at a frantic rate, making change constant and creating a secondary market in patents.  

Downstream, many thousands of others develop software and apps for each of the new products, creating a separate industry. And beyond that, society transforms itself, adopting innovations for good and ill, from sexting to monitoring a business deal from the beach.

The impact goes well beyond the use of the devices themselves. Just as we always said about the space program, the explosion of inventiveness in consumer technology creates spinoffs into other parts of the economy: cars, medical devices, mining, the space program itself.

Breakneck speed

This is why so many influential people want to keep BlackBerry alive and in Canada. It is a potential one-shop economic stimulant.

This kind of furious economic transformation and inventiveness is rare. Within the private sector, the automotive and pharmaceutical industries have similar features but cannot capture the breakneck transformative speed of consumer tech.

So if this industry is such a powerful engine of growth, what is the ultimate driver?

I just asked a chum at the CBC who is both a professional technology manager and a private gizmo fanatic why he liked new personal technology so much. He is one of those people who cannot wait to get his hands on the latest technology product.

My friend paused and thought and began making an intellectualized response, something about how he likes the challenge of making a new device do things it wasn't supposed to do.

But that petered out weakly. It seemed pretty clear he couldn't really put his finger on why he liked the latest consumer tech —he just did. If it was new, he wanted it.

And despite all the attention smartphones are getting now, the passion for new consumer technology has been evident from well before the idea of sexting entered the brain of a single teenager or U.S. politician.

A survey of ads from the 1930s finds men showing off their new radios to women. Instead of Apple's "Touch ID," they offered "Superheterodyne Circuits."

In the genes

It seems clear to me that the urge to have the latest doodad goes way back in human society. "What? You chip a rock like that and it cuts leather? Hey, I want one of those."

Apple's excitment over the iPhone is far from the first frenzy over the latest high-tech gizmo - Eaton's was more than ready to promote new and considerably larger radios several decades ago. (Eaton's)

To a competitive society struggling for survival, a desire for the latest and best technology has got to be programmed into our genes.

The other advantage of the very latest thing is that it confers status, attracting admirers and sexual partners, another genetic survival plus — something apparent in consumer tech advertising.

I remember a friend from university spending a pile on a state-of-the-art Harman Kardon turntable (if you don't know what they are, kids, ask Grandpa) to run through my crummy second-hand speakers. I presume the genetic imperative applied, as our ears were not sensitive enough to notice the difference.

This is the odd thing about consumer tech. While a new smartphone may indeed make your life better in many cases, the benefit is far from unequivocal.

Sure, it is handy to know the kids will be late for supper or where to meet in a public place. But we managed both those things before the smartphone arrived. As for the meeting at the beach, new technology can impose as much as it serves.

Take the back seat

And the status advantage? It's transitory. A year after possessing the iPhone 5 makes you feel on top of the world, seeing someone with today's new iPhone 5S makes you feel like a sucker — a sucker who desperately wants a 5S yourself.

Individually, the best strategy may well be to take a back seat, enjoy the benefits of the economic stimulus and wait for the tech that will really make a useful difference in your life. I have many friends who do just that, and are somehow able to resist gizmo madness and refuse to get on the hamster wheel.

Indeed, the hamster-wheel effect is the other reason that consumer tech has such a disproportionate economic effect. It is built deep into our genes.

Like the race between the fastest cheetah and the fastest antelope, the competition for the latest technology is a race that will never end. Gizmo madness is the economic gift that keeps giving.