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Thread: Can you hear me now... ?

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    Vulture of The Western World Eric's Avatar
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    Can you hear me now... ?

    I drew my personal line in the sand with cell phones. I'm in my early 40s, so I have already lived most of my life without them - and hope I can go the rest of it the same cell-free way.

    Why? The devices are overdone, annoying (constantly dropped calls, for one, which almost never happens with a land line) and work against the basic purpose of a telephone, which ought to be facilitating a conversation. Not taking videos, "texting," reading Emoticons, listening to tinny jingles - or annoying those around you with such vacuities. Cell phones (and "service") are also absurdly overpriced. Many of us think nothing of spending as much as several hundred dollars on a phone (a device that used to cost $25) that will be obsolete or broken beyond economic repair within 24 months or less.

    Cars have become like this, too.

    It's hard to just get in and drive anymore. First, you have to "agree" with the GPS system's lawyer-lawsuit warning that you will pay attention to the road, not the LCD display. Then you've got to hassle with the keyless ignition thing - which may work now but when it stops working, you'll be looking at $500 instead of five bucks to get a new key cut at the hardware store.

    I read about a guy with a late model Volvo that has the new Volvo Blind Spot Warning System built into the outside rearview mirror. He brushed up against something and busted the mirror. Twenty years ago, this would be twenty bucks, give or take. Now it is $300 - plus labor.

    Here's my theory: Cars have essentially been perfected. The engine/driveline, body and so on have been refined over the past 100-plus years to the nth degree. There are no longer Great Leaps Forward to be made. Just incremental fiddling around the periphery. And these smaller and smaller improvements become progressively more and more expensive - what economist call the law of diminishing returns.

    So, since the cars themselves are more or less "done," the industry spends its time adding gadgets and finding ways to re-invent existing systems and controls - almost always making them more complicated and expensive, usually in the name of "luxury" or some such.

    In this way, cars, like cell phones (and TV remotes) have become encrusted with a ridiculous complement of "features" and "options" that are the distilled essence of complexity for its own sake.

    Modern cars beep and blink and lock doors when you don't want them locked, thwart burnouts, feed a steady stream of data about where you are and how you're driving (GM OnStar) to the Big Brotherish car company - and are in general an expensive, over-teched pain in our asses.

    We can't fix 'em - and we're less and less allowed to drive them, too. Computer controls intercede ever more aggressively with each new model year. Most of these systems - ASR, ESP, Brake Assist, StabiliTrak, etc. - cannot be turned off, or only turned off after executing a tedious protocol that must be repeated again, next time you decide you'd rather not have an electronic Nanny looking over your shoulder.

    We've been instructed to believe we need - no, must have - these things. They are "advanced" - and "safe." Of course they are also suffocating and involve big bucks. Which is part of the reason why we're broke - and the auto industry on its knees.

    This relentless pyramiding could not continue indefinitely. Something had to give.

    It finally has.

    When I was a kid in the late-'70s, a Cadillac Seville cost about $12,000 brand-new - and it was the most expensive American car on the market at that time. When I was in college a few years later in the mid-late '80s, a top-of-the-line American car might have cost $25,000 or so. Even as recently as 1990, a Seville STS had an MSRP of $36,320.

    Today, $35k is considered "entry level" - and may just barely buy you something like a Lexus ES350, the least expensive Lexus there is.

    Yes, I understand there is inflation. But not this much. Typical car prices have increased by 30-50 percent in some cases. Fifty and sixty thousand dollar cars today are commonplace. And the reason why is simply the relentless march of electronic kudzu - everything from 6-8 air bags to multiple LCD displays to "radios" that have become "audio systems" with more functions than most of us will ever even begin to comprehend, let alone actually make use of.

    It's no wonder we're po' - and feeling frazzled, too. It should not be this elaborate - or this expensive.

    And it doesn't have to be, either.

    All that's required is for more of us to stand athwart the mindless bum's rush of "progress" and say, No Thanks. Enough. Certain things no longer require improving. We'd be better off investing the time and money in things that could and do - such as rebuilding this country's ability to make things other than Internet porno and shyster financial "instruments." How about a space vehicle capable of economically taking humans to the other planets in our solar system (and we will need to do this sooner than most of us imagine at the current rate of population growth). Or maybe finding a way to make our machinery run on something other than petroleum? All kinds of productive things need doing.

    But will we do them? Or will we continue pouring our minds and money into turning something basic like making a phone call - or driving across town - a comedy of needless complexity, expense and hassle?
    Last edited by Eric; 02-24-2009 at 08:41 AM.

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