Tuesday, September 27, 2011

From car to computer crazed

When I was a kid, each fall on my way home from school I’d veer off the shortest route home to walk by a trucking firm that hauled new cars.

Well before I ogled newspaper photos of the new models, I would get an exclusive look at the sleek sheet metal riding on the open trailers and lined up in the trucking company lots.

This was not idle voyeurism. Every other year I knew that my Dad would buy one of these remarkable machines. A lot of people did. The Fifties were the height of the car culture. Detroit and its auto fantasy drove the bulk of American industry.

So as I’d approach the trucking lot in anticipation, I’d feel a rush of quasi-ownership. A compulsion really. An irrational lure.

For all kinds of reasons, besides the turning of hundreds of calendar pages, those days are over.

Today, cars last longer. We keep them longer. Much longer. We have to. I’ve lost my obsession for outrageous stylistic flair and the newest, latest. Owning a new car has no cache with my friends or family. My cars have been used for the past 20 years. Not clunkers exactly, but they’d been around their share of blocks.

Still, the feeling that I had approaching that trucking lot decades ago is still with me. Today, satisfying the consumptive urge costs less and achieves more — or at least I’d like to think it does.

What attracts me and millions of others now are new computers and associated geeky gadgets. The “much anticipated” label gets applied to every new mass-marketed computer device. These machines are “unveiled” just as Chevy Impalas and Pontiac Firebirds once were. Think no farther than the anticipation surrounding the iPhone 5, and the new Amazon tablet.

Here we have “not-so-major” purchases that still create buzz and carry status. Apple, today’s Chrysler or Lincoln or Cadillac, profits from high price tags partly for this reason. It also helps that the Cupertino giant is fixated on consumer satisfaction.

Computers are much more parts of our lives than cars were. And much more important to us. In fact, our cars rely on computers. Which is more difficult to replace, a stolen car or a stolen computer? We are “into” computers far more than we are "in" our cars. These wheel-less vehicles can transport us to real and imaginary worlds in nano seconds!

Oddly, points of comparison between computers sound similar to those once used in car marketing. Power, performance, speed, design. A current Intel campaign displays a sports car with half of its front appearance portrayed in x-ray. The caption reads, “Visibly_Smart....Stunning Visuals_Intelligent Performance”

No one ever told us we were “smart” or “intelligent” to buy the now iconic 1959 Chevy Impala but visuals and performance — computer selling points — were definitely in play.

Accessories also come into play. I have a new Mac Air (yes, Apple grabbed me again). Its keyboard lights up, presumably on the off chance I need to work on the Red Eye after the cabin lights have dimmed. The metallic graceful notebook is also light, thin and, well, sleek. These non-essentials no doubt played a role as I forked over a cool grand for an Air at the Apple “showroom.”

Didn’t cars once “grace” showrooms?

No list of comparisons would be complete without mentioning planned obsolescence, except in the case of computers you don’t get the feeling it is all that planned. The “latest technology” really is the latest. With cars, the basic technology never really changed until the introduction of the hybrid system.

Finally, there is the status-defining differentiation within lines. When Dad bought his new Buick, he bypassed the “entry-level” Special and the “luxury” Roadmaster and the similar, but less powerful Super. For him, the “Century” fit his persona. It was the closest thing that Buick had to a hot rod.

When I shopped Apple for my laptop, I too had a hierarchy of MacBook models to choose from. Good, better, best.

I got the feeling that the choices were there mostly to give me pause to ponder and engage with my options and prospective purchase. They defined the field. Besides, Apple seemed to be saying that it had given thought to my individuality. Steve Jobs had, in fact, considered me.

Buick showed the same marketing “sensitivity” to my Dad a half century ago.

Have we come all that far since then?

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