Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Two Footprints of the Information Age

At a DSO concert held at a nearby church a short while back, we sat (as usually) in the front row of a high balcony, just above the orchestra. That DSO stands for the Detroit  Symphony Orchestra. From our high perch we could easily survey the largely elderly crowd of music lovers—but here and there some young people too. I noticed that an elderly gent in the audience, waiting for the performance to begin, was operating a laptop computer. This made me curious. A More careful surveying revealed several others looking at pads and a larger number, here and there, were staring at or texting on smartphones.

This came to mind again yesterday when one of our morning conversations ranged over that topic so central to the elderly, be they Brigitte and me or, say, Miss Marple musing in Agatha Christie’s imagination.

I myself do not remember a time “before the telephone,” but you had to be a doctor to have one in the house. My grandfather was one—and I clearly remember that it once rang, and, for a joke, I got to go into a dark hallway and answer it. My memory is that of a strange sound coming from the black thing I was almost too little to hold—and its earpiece was several times the size of my ear. Buzzing and echo and what seemed to be a voice…

Remembering such things, we were soon making lists of all the extensive branchings of telephone and radio—of communications generally—that had sprouted since. Eventually we started toting up the costs of these activities tools and services too: cable and internet, computers and software, some of that software purchased yearly, like Norton’s antivirus immunization shots, cell phones and the disappearance of telephone boxes at Kroger and Safeway where, once, I used to call home for updates of my shopping list; indeed I used to head out making sure I had some quarters; these days I carry a Verizon phone with its own contract and regular monthly charges. But I digress. Part of that list includes movie rentals and DVR machines (which replaced the tape players) and a gaggle or pride or expense (not a bad generic for the category) of peripherals, cables, disk backups, portable hard drives smaller than my thumb, and a basement full of fossils filling wire baskets and boxes—obsolete electronics one simply hates to dump.

I got to wondering how much we actually spent on things like that. It seemed to me we spent a lot. And from that feeling comes my headline today. The communications age has two footprints. One is huge and one is relatively small. Turns out that I was confusing one with the other.

The large footprint comes from the importance communications services represent—and especially in the life of the elderly—and of the young. The failure of the internet is emotionally almost as bad as losing power; when the DVR misbehaves, somebody here makes energetic moves to restore the status quo, practiced in the art of applying the electronic equivalent of a Heimlich maneuver; it’s that important. Indeed it is important enough so that our collections-challenged but much loved little library is annually devoting more and more space to computers for patrons to use—instead of preparing to serve us with more words on paper when the terrorists finally take away our dreamtime.

Now the small footprint of the communications age turns out to be its total cost. Data on expenditures for internet, cable, cell phone services, movies, and such are strewn about the web; and they do tend to converge on a certain number but obviously leave much of the actual cost out. Using such methods (our own numbers are much higher), one sees a value of approximately $125 per month. I decided to look at national statistics, available from the Census Bureau’s Consumer Expenditure survey, to get a more general view. It turns out that, in 2012, the average household expenditure on communications (equipment and services both) comes to $185 per month; Canada, by the way, reports exactly the same figure collected the same way. Of this total $103 are accounted for by telephone, $82 by a category called Audio and Visual Equipment and Services. In 1989, the total was $83 per month (telephone $47, A/V $36). More to the point here is the percent such numbers represent to total household income. That percentage is the “footprint.”

It turns out that in 2012 the average annual gross household income was $65,596—and the Information Age claimed a mere 3.38 percent of that. That footprint was smaller in 1989—but not by much: 3.18 percent.

Huge impact on lifestyle, a quite small one on income. Everything depends on point of view.

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