Topic: Personal
Lately I’ve made a couple of technology purchases, and I have to admit that I’ve found it a surprisingly trying experience. We now have a flat-screen TV (just a cheapie, mind you), and digital cable with a zillion channels to go with it. And digital video recording, which is what we always wished TV was: you can record the shows you like, watch them whenever, pause them, and fast-forward through the commercials. Then today I ordered a cell phone from T-Mobile. We already have one, but now we’ll have two, so Jenny and I can reach each other as we wander the city.

The thing is, there’s now both so much technology and so many roughly equivalent products that the old way of shopping — doing research, studying features, making an informed decision — becomes absurdly cumbersome. And for any particular purchase, the price is just high enough that I wish I could do sensible research, but just low enough that it’s kind of a waste to bother. With this kind of saturated market, where there are twelve cell phone companies offering twelve phones and twelve rate plans each, the concept of the informed consumer, so vital to market theory, goes out the window. Instead, we end up with a glut of similarly shoddy products on the market, with very little incentive for one company to offer better phones or better customer service. I suppose that gradually the right information will percolate through the market, just as it did with Web portals — how often do you use AltaVista or Excite.com these days? Not often, because they sucked. But those were free services, and there was absolutely zero barrier to switching to Yahoo and Google. With cell phones, it’s different: you get stuck with a contract, so it can take years for word to get around that T-Mobile is good (as I hope very much it is) or that Cingular sucks (it does, and as of May 15 we can switch without paying $70).

As for the TV, it’s an Esa, a brand so obscure that it has no website, yet so prominent that MSN and Circuit City sell them. I went to the store, it looked okay, it was cheap enough, and I bought it. Was it an informed decision? Not hardly. Does it matter? Only if the TV breaks.