March 28, 2006 at 10:00 AM ET
Technology often creates as many problems as it solves. And it almost always ends up costing more money.
The other day, I lost the stylus in my swanky new Sprint phone. It's unique, of course, unlike the thousands of other styli out there for the hundreds of other palm-sized devices. So there's only one place to buy a replacement -- Sprint.
What does it cost to replace my stylus? $25. I'm required to buy a package of three.
When I objected to the 19-year-old behind the Sprint counter, he rolled his eyes and looked at me like I had just complained that the price of Bazooka gum had jumped from 1 cent to 2 cents. As I turned to leave without purchasing the stylus, doomed to a life of poking my cell phone screen with pen caps, he grunted something that could roughly be translated as, “Shouldn’t you be retiring soon?”
I think this was a rite of passage for me, and not a good one ... but I digress.
As anyone who knows me will gladly share, I lose a lot of things. In high school, I was always the one borrowing a pen in a panic as the test began. If you travel at all, you’ve probably seen a cell phone, laptop bag or car keys that belong to me sitting in some airport on a seat near a gate during the past couple of years. It's a condition, I believe, like being born left-handed. I know I am not alone.
Now, here's the problem: When I was in high school and lost a pen, the penalty was about $1. Today, thanks to our new and improved high-tech world, the penalty for losing my pen-like stylus is $25. That’s not inflation. That’s thievery.
My lose-itis aside, the high cost of high-tech replacement is a huge source of stress in modern life, and it's often incredibly unfair -- an example of what I like to call "gotcha capitalism." My colleague Roland Jones recently unmasked a particularly egregious form of this in a story called "High-tech car keys causing low-tech hassles."
Many car keys now come with special computer chips embedded inside that prevent a criminal from using a duplicate key to steal the car. The technology is clever. The chip emits a frequency that the car recognizes; if it doesn’t hear that frequency, the car refuses to start. The technology behind the key is usually RFID, which you will see cropping up in all kinds of places during the next decade. Pants and shirts will be able to talk to each other this way (you’re wearing that?), and they’ll be able to talk to the store, too (you should really wear this! And look, it’s on sale!)
But there’s a cost for all this wizardry. A very high replacement cost. Car owners who have come to terms with their lose-itis can’t stock up on duplicate keys at the hardware store for a couple of bucks. The price to replace RFID keys is astronomical. A key for a new Lexus can cost $335. Worse yet, the number of places to buy a replacement is limited, so if you lose your key on a weekend, you may be out of luck for several days.
The captive consumer
Here's what's wrong with this picture. A consumer who loses a telephone stylus or an electronic car key is a captive consumer. There is no free market in operation. There's no shopping around for the best deal. As a result, companies can charge almost anything they want for these replacement items. In fact, the situation becomes akin to what critics have at times called reverse competition: the only pressure on the price set by companies is upward pressure -- that is, how much money can the seller squeeze out of the buyer, because there's no countervailing force, like competition, creating downward pressure.
Of course, companies relish this position. Have you ever wondered why you must buy a new car charger with each cell phone you get? Are there really that many designs for the thing? It's as if there's been a great schism in the engineering world, and every single cell phone designer must concoct a slightly different car charger to make a point. This isn't a place for individualized artistic expression, and all this creativity is clogging our landfills with perfectly functioning cell phone cigarette lighter chargers. It's another example of our oh-too-disposable culture.
I know, people always respond to these articles by saying this is simply capitalism at work -- companies trying to make the most money for their bottom line and their shareholders. Phooey. This is a monopolistic situation, where a captive consumer has no choice but to buy one product from one company. There is no free market in operation here.
That's not capitalism.
And perhaps more important, it's yet another source of anxiety in our already-anxious times. I know I speak for all those of us with lose-itis when I say, give us a break, not a "gotcha!" And if not, at least get us a bulk discount on replacement keys.
Have you suffered from the high cost of high-tech replacement? Feel free to use the box below to request sympathy or commiserate.