Originally created 04/02/00

Needless technologies

The great thinkers of our time have some high-minded ideas about what we can do with technology. They dream about how it can improve mankind -- how it can help us live healthier, happier lives.

The entrepreneurs of our time, however, have some other ideas. They know that technology can help them do what they have always done: find more ways to separate us from our money. And the possibilities abound.

"Technological changes are great for entrepreneurs," University of Georgia business professor Jeffery Humphreys said. "They provide opportunities where there were none before."

Savvy business leaders have known for years that a little bit of science can give vitality to an old product. That's why laundry detergent companies are constantly promoting "new and improved" brands.

Technology, they know, makes things more desirable.

Take the plain-old everyday toothbrush or razor or pen. Add a little technology and voila! They become hot, new products -- a brush that reaches places that it never could before, a razor that cuts hair but not skin, and a pen that writes while holding it upside down.

Of course, we rush to buy them.

Sometimes, though, the value that technology adds is hard to see. But if we are willing to pay for it, Dr. Humphreys said, it exists.

Ron Popeil built and lost and rebuilt a small empire with this knowledge. Remember Ronco commercials at Christmas? Remember the smokeless ashtray, the food dehydrator and the pocket fisherman? Remember how much you wanted them simply because they made you say, wow?

One reason we buy this stuff is it makes us feel better.

Of the 1,122 adults surveyed in a recent Yankelovich Partners study, 62 percent acknowledged that they felt good after buying something. Thirty percent of the respondents said they deliberately shop to beat the blues.

"It's very sexy to go out and buy something," said Nathan Dungan, a vice president with the Minneapolis-based financial services company Lutheran Brotherhood. "There will always be things with new enhancements that will pull us into a state of consumption."

Another reason we buy this stuff is to fulfill our dreams. Technology makes it possible to realize our imagination. The newest gizmos don't always improve our lives, but we believe they do and we are willing to spend a lot for that sense of satisfaction.

"We have a culture that promotes that idea," said Michael Searles, an American history professor at Augusta State University.

Consumerism and materialism are an American way of life, he added.

The ability to buy what we want is, after all, the American Dream.

Ever dream about owning something that could sense your mood? Technology gives us the BioTouch Interactive Mood Light, a tabletop device that supposedly senses unconscious reactions to stress. It measures galvanic skin response -- whatever that is. Touch it with your finger-tips and it emits colorful waves of light.

Ever dream about owning a device that could cool you on a hot day? Technology gives us the Personal Cooling System 2.0, a device that wraps around your neck like a wet towel. Fill it with water and switch it on. A tiny fan blows cool air against your skin.

How about owning a pet robot? Ever dream of that? Technology give us AIBO, a robotic dog made by Sony. AIBO has 18 motors and never needs to be walked. He can, according to the manufacturer, sit, sleep, lie, listen, walk and bark.

But do we really need these things?

Do we really need a $79.95 light to tell us when we are upset? Or a $49.95 device that creates a breeze on our neck? Or a $2,500 dog that comes with lithium ion batteries.

Does all this technology really improve our lives?

Or does it just make us want to reach for our wallets.

High Tech

Here are some more high-tech items with questionable value:

Aquaroid Fish: A $142 robotic pet fish by Japanese toymaker Takara. It swims and is powered by light. The product is scheduled for commercial sale in the fall.

Burltech Finish Ultra Heart and Sound Soother: A $139.95 "relaxation system" that mimics a variety of sounds including rain, a summer night and the human heartbeat.

CD Shower Companion: A $189.95 stereo and compact disc player that works in the shower. It is completely water-resistant and operates on batteries or can be plugged in.

Dynablade TurboGrip: A $49.95 razor. Electric blades zip along at about 8,000 strokes a minute. Runs on AA batteries.

Soft-Sound Hair Dryer: A $39.95 device that dries hair quietly. It is supposedly 90 percent quieter than a conventional hair dryer.

Solar Shower: A $299 outdoor, 7-foot pool shower that has a solar tube to heat water. Hook it up to a garden hose. Orient it to the sun.

Reach Frank Witsil at 823-3352.


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