The past fortnight has illustrated one of modern capitalism's quaintest contradictions. A week after the presentation of the Government's transport review, with its alleged emphasis on discouraging car use, July turned into August and thousands of new cars will soon hit the roads. At last there's an S in the month.
What's more, this officially sanctioned new-car-sales bonanza will henceforward occur twice a year. The authorities claim that increasing its frequency will diminish its intensity. My guess is that in a few years time we will have, in effect, two Augusts a year unless a deep recession intervenes.
I plead guilty to having written the occasional facetious piece arguing that what the PC industry needed was some kind of equivalent annual event.
After all, most PCs do not wear out any more quickly than the average modern car.
Apart from giving rise to the odd mail-order horror story, the hardware in particular seems to be fairly reliable. So people need to be persuaded to replace it on a regular basis. So far, suppliers have achieved this by adding features either to hardware or software. That has worked satisfactorily as a means of stimulating an upgrade cycle, but it has an obvious drawback.
Adding features involves work ; changing a letter on a registration plate does not.
If there were convincing evidence to suggest that large numbers of users regularly demand additional power, functionality and retraining, I would applaud the responsiveness of the PC suppliers. But surely demand and need have very little to do with it. Does anyone believe we all need to upgrade our machines every couple of years? The upgrade cycle is an artificial creation. Once that is accepted, we may as well be quite cynical and propose that it be streamlined to be as economical as possible. Cars too have occasional new features, but no-one pretends the motoring public absolutely insists on replacing its vehicles every August for that reason.
Consumer behaviour is not always completely rational and that gives market forces an element of mystery. The essence of the contradiction in the system is that products must be sold regardless of how unnecessary they are. Sales of new cars may mean increasingly clogged roads, but they also mean jobs wherever it is foreign companies build British cars these days.
With PCs there is an additional twist. Not only do sales of PCs contribute to employment in the PC manufacturing sphere, they also contribute to the efficient production of other things. These other things - products and services - may be more or less desirable or frivolous. Once produced, however, they must be sold. The contribution of IT to the world's superfluity is very considerable.
The registration plate idea is, as noted, economic in its way. The PC industry seems not to have noticed. Instead it pursues different paths.
One appears to be to encourage people to leave their PCs switched on all the time. The more work you ask a PC to take on, the less likely it is that you will ever switch it off. Perhaps the suppliers hope that the machines will actually wear out and have to be replaced.
There are two things wrong with this tactic. One: despite sleep states and the generally lower power consumption of modern PCs, a huge waste of resources is implied. Two: it sets a very poor example. Heaven forbid that people should be encouraged to use their cars more, let alone incessantly.
Socially, the most desirable approach to the enjoyment of consumer durables is precisely that they should not be consumed. Let them be bought and periodically replaced, by all means, but it's doubtful we can afford for them actually to be consumed.
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