Essays on Technology and Culture

In Praise of Cheap and Good Enough

Andy Ihnatko has filed his column from Mobile World Conference, the playground where all the biggest, shiniest, and priciest mobile gizmos are announced, save for the ones from Apple. Unlike most of the other reports from MWC, Andy is focusing on something beyond the glitzy: really good, really cheap consumer technology. Why? Because some of it is surprisingly good, and also because

“[T]here are so many people in the US and around the world who just flat-out can’t afford the stuff with top-of-the-line specs, or even the midpriced stuff. The fetishization of the premium market often makes it seems as if there’s a sign hanging on the door of the consumer tech world that reads ‘Go be poor somewhere else.’ That’s immensely troubling.”

All the talk about the $5,000 to $20,000 (or beyond) Apple Watch Edition seems to have awoken a dormant populist streak in some tech folks—myself included. It wasn’t that long ago when the rhetoric around technology was that of liberation, and the goal was to get it in as many hands as possible. While the price of useful, and reasonably long-lasting computer hardware has dropped, even the mid-tier is priced too high for huge swath of the world… or just the United States. All the profit is at the high-end of the market, though many companies still offer “cheap” models. And, of course, to make up for the cheap prices, you often end up with privacy-ruining crapware on your new machine.

There’s nothing democratizing about super-expensive consumer technology, and I say this as someone who has happily shelled out the money for Apple hardware, and will do so again in the future. Yet, I have no qualms about suggesting to friends who need new phones and computers to get cheaper, equally functional products. [1] The WinBook TW700 tablet Andy mentions is fascinating, and I’m almost curious enough to drop $60 just to try a Windows 8.1 tablet that I don’t even need. (Almost.)

The accusations of elitism thrown at certain Apple fans are not off the mark. A lot of us love our expensive, shiny, Apple hardware. There’s nothing wrong with that. When we continue to insist that the expensive, shiny Apple hardware we own is the best solution for everyone, and to attack the taste of people who deign to use Android, Windows, a Chromebook, or run Linux, we add nothing to the conversation. As technology journalists and writers, when we act as though our personal choices are the only correct choice, either by direct statement or implication, we’re failing at our job. I can’t put it better than Andy does, which is probably why he’s made a career out of his technology writing: “technology is supposed to improve and elevate everybody.”

Let’s not lose sight of that before the next major product announcement.

  1. The only exception is that I’m not ready to recommend an Android tablet to anyone, unless they really don’t want an Apple device. It’s possible the Android tablet experience has improved, but I don’t have much exposure to it. That said, if someone wants to toss a Nexus 7 my way, I won’t say no.  ↩