For now, at least, it appears the gadget apocalypse has been averted, due in part to threats of actual apocalypse. Seven months of shattered plans, lockdowns and rapidly improvised new normals have converted jaded consumers around the world into frantic gadget freaks, each grasping for items that, in their chaotic disparity, tell the story of a strange, dark year: pulse oximeters, the iPhone 12, HEPA air filters, infrared thermometers, bare-minimum tablets and laptops for schooling, the PlayStation 5 (pre-order), ring lights, miniature freezers, home networking equipment, and noise canceling headphones.
Elements of this gadget boom are more 2002 than 2020. When’s the last time you went comparison shopping for a webcam? How are you enjoying that new inkjet printer? And yet it evokes 2200 as well. Did you expect to spend your summer trying to figure out if an air purifier made by a Bluetooth speaker company was going to be sufficient to clear the atmosphere in your isolation pod on an increasingly hostile planet?
One striking detail of this gadget boom is that the horsemen of the once-inevitable gadget apocalypse have slowed to a trot. Gartner, the research firm and consultancy, estimated that smartphone sales fell by 20 per cent in the second quarter of the year, when much of the world was dealing with severe and increasing COVID-19 case-loads and economies in steep decline. There are new game consoles on the horizon, but they’re not yet out; the breakout device in the gaming industry was also the most gadgety of its peers — the three-year-old Nintendo Switch.
Before 2020, many popular consumer electronics were receding into the background, more vital and useful than ever but purchased, wielded and discarded with a sense of routine, rather than novelty. In this way, smartphones are like cars: first, obnoxiously out of place; then, ubiquitous and yet more demanding; finally, taken for granted and made invisible, despite remaking the world around them in increasingly ambitious ways. Nowhere are the disparate experiences of the pandemic gadget boom more obvious than on Amazon, which has mutated from the “everything store” into a global product distribution utility. Wednesday’s selection of featured Prime Day sales seemed COVID-aware: cheap childproof tablets, noise-cancelling headphones, an Instant Pot and countless items to furnish a long-haul home office.
The pandemic gadget boom is a story of both new needs fulfilled and old desires restored. This gadget boom will end like every other — with a bunch of little-used and rapidly obsolete junk stowed away in
closets and landfills around the globe — but it won’t inspire much nostalgia. This isn’t spontaneous mass hobbyism or a slide into decadence. It’s a cornered populace spending what they can in hopes that some novel invention will stave off disaster, or even just gloom. In this brutally unexpected year, the luckiest were buying their way through hard times, sustained by the hope that another purchase might fix a new problem, momentarily re-empowered, if only by tapping another “Confirm” button, and buoyed by the simple, shameful pleasure of acquisition. The rest were coping, meeting sudden demands or simply trying to stay safe, whatever the cost.
Pandemic gadgets don’t bother to lie about being the next big thing. They do not even claim to be a way to catch up with the next big thing. Their guaranteed future obsolescence — perhaps the defining
characteristic of a gadget — isn’t something to hide, because when it comes to pass, it won’t be a disappointment. It will be a relief.
John Herrman covers tech and media for Styles and the Magazine. NYT©2020
The New York Times