Thursday, December 30, 2010

False Needs, Technological Regress, and the Mechanical Pencil

As I wasted a perfectly good hour of vacation fixing the shorter of the short people's mechanical pencil -- a stocking stuffer he asked for and received -- Marx's notion of false needs came to mind, that is, the idea that in order to sell more stuff, the capitalists will have to convince the consumers that they need things they really don't need. If the consumer was the rational agent that classical capitalist theory assumes, then there would be markedly less activity in the marketplace.

Along these lines, there is absolutely no reason for the existence of the mechanical pencil. It is less convenient, less dependable, and more expensive than its traditional counterpart. It does nothing the regular pencil doesn't and does what it does less well. It is an example of technological regress where something new and cool is actually less effective than the thing it replaces. Yet, we think we need it because it looks shiny, new, and cool. It is not only unnecessary, it is anti-necessary.

What other products can you think of that are hailed as advances on its predecessors, yet are actually a step backwards in terms of utility? MicroSoft Word would be example number 2 from me (I suppose the pencil should have been number 2, but that's a different issue). Others?