Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#7, July 15, 1998


by Marylaine Block

I was listening to REM recently - always a mysterious experience, since their lyrics tend to get lost in the music. In one of Michael Stipe's rare moments of clarity, I distinctly heard the words "This machine can only swallow money," and I thought, these guys are on to something.

Granted, I couldn't understand what machine they were talking about, but that doesn't matter. Name a machine, any machine, and I promise you, it swallows money.

If we find ourselves chronically strapped for cash, it may be because of all the gadgets we support. We love our machines, even taking them with us wherever we go -- where else on earth will you see a man at a football game, watching it on his portable television? But the price of each gadget is just the first of many expenses.

Buy a microwave oven, and you'll have to buy ceramic plates and baking dishes.

Buy a CD player and you'll start buying CDs, which over time will cost far more than even the most expensive player. If you want to take your music with you, you need a Walkman and an unending supply of batteries.*

Buy an ordinary television set, and pretty soon it looks pathetic next to the newer, large screen TVs, so you buy a new set, moving the old one to another room. Since everybody wants to watch something different, pretty soon you've bought a TV for every room. If you don't like network programming, you buy cable or a dish. The programs you want to watch may be on at an inconvenient time (the first rounds of the NCAA tournament occur during standard working hours, which may cause an unusually large number of men to call in sick every March). So you buy a videorecorder, which needs an endless supply of blank tapes. Pretty soon, you have to buy special storage racks for the videotapes.

The computer is the ultimate electronic maw. It requires a printer, which requires paper and expensive cartridges. Computers need software, modems, floppy disks,* and internet service providers. All the equipment requires a good computer desk to set it on. Before you know it, you'll need to buy a new computer, because your existing one, the computer equivalent of the tin lizzie, can't run any of the nifty new programs. Even to keep on doing what you're already doing you'll be forced into continuous upgrades. I call this the techno-economic imperative.

And then there is the automobile. No matter how good a deal you got, there is no such thing as a cheap car.

Even if you can pay cash and don't have to repay some bank both principle and interest, you need insurance. And gas. And oil. And tires. When something goes wrong, you need new parts and a mechanic whose hourly rates are higher than God's. Whenever I am tempted to get a car,** I am saved by hearing my friends tell about a car repair that brought them near bankruptcy. It reminds me that the last time I took my bike in for a complete overhaul, new tires and brakes, it cost me $75, and I come to my senses.**

In his book, The Soft Edge, Paul Levinson described something he calls "remedial media." In solving one problem, he says, every technology creates new ones, which require yet another technology to fix them. The window solved the problem of dark interiors, but it let in cold air. Glass solved that problem, but not the problem of people being able to see into your house and watch you in intimate moments. The window created the peeping tom, a problem then corrected by the invention of curtains.

So when we're figuring out whether we can afford the next nifty new machine, we maybe need to factor in what the machine will cost us AFTER we have finished paying for it. Because whatever the machine is, I guarantee you it can only swallow money. The only questions are: how much? And, does it matter to us as much as the fact that we want that gadget and we want it now?

*written before the iPod, Tivo, flash drives, etc., came along.
**written before I finally bought a car

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