The Case of the Disappearing Product

Everywhere you look, manufactured products are disappearing into the aether. This isn’t the plot of a steampunk Sherlock Holmes story, nor a complaint about ‘vapourware’… it’s the phenomenon of dematerialization. Many things now have less of a physical presence than they used to, or none at all. Will you soon be supplying nuts-and-bolts products in a world where your rivals are putting out nothing but pixels?

Star Trek transporter

Dematerialization: nothing to do with ‘Star Trek’

Consider the pocket calculator: the picture below is an advertisement for one, from September 1963. It’s not what we think of as a calculator as it’s all-mechanical. It features eight ounces of precisely manufactured gears and other parts, with a handle that you crank to perform mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication or division… and until the arrival of the electronic calculator in the 1970s, these were the best calculators that money (quite a lot of money) could buy.

Curta calculator advertisement

The Curta Calculator, as advertised in 1963

The Curta ceased to be made in the early 1970s, when advances in integrated circuits meant that a mechanical calculator simply couldn’t compete. Solid state electronics offered a calculator with no moving parts, and prices tumbled – by as much as 20% every six months. It’s laughable to think of carefully cutting a mass of intricate metal parts, painting numbers on them and assembling them to produce a heavy calculator that remains somewhat difficult to use, after electronics offered a smaller, lighter, and cheaper solution: the product dematerialized.

Dematerialization is good; it’s proof that we continue to work towards the challenge set by R. Buckminster Fuller: “…to do so much with so little as forever to be able to sustain and physically satisfy all humanity.” (Who doesn’t have access to a calculator, nowadays? Not many people.) It’s good sense for other products to dematerialize, too: if a car can be made lighter, various benefits are likely to be enjoyed, such as better acceleration and fuel economy.

Back in 1969, the Welsh psychedelic/prog rock band Man released their second album, cheekily titled ‘2 ozs of Plastic with a Hole in the Middle.’ It sounds almost as ruthlessly honest as Ronseal’s famous advertising slogan, “it does exactly what it says on the tin”, but there were a number of things that even the most futuristic band could not have foreseen in 1969: not just the adoption of the metric system (two ounces of plastic is a little over 57 grams…) but the arrival of the compact disc, in 1982. The same album is available on CD now (of course) but you only get around fifteen grams of polycarbonate. With a hole in the middle. Another option (post 1995 and the widespread adoption of the MP3 file format) is a music download, for music that weighs nothing at all. Immune to irony, the music industry sells the album that way, too.

Music has gone virtual; it’s transcended the physical plane to exist as (almost) nothing but information – and you could say that the pocket calculator has done the same. A lot of people make do with using their mobile ’phone as a calculator, now (unless they need a proper one because they’re sitting exams). And whatever happened to the Sony Walkman, or the handheld games console? All but gone; the modern mobile meets those needs, too. Some people don’t own a camera because they consider the one on their ’phone to be good enough, and some get along fine without a wristwatch too – although it will be interesting to see if the long-anticipated ‘smart’ watches that link to the mobile reverse that trend.

Remember the telephone answering machine? Motoring maps? Two more things that have dematerialized, edged out by voicemail and ‘sat-nav’, respectively. We get the same benefit, nowadays, but we don’t own a physical product. Another significant contribution to dematerialization that has accompanied the mobile ’phone is the reduction in fixed infrastructure: the use of radio spectrum instead of expensive physical connections has allowed telephone networks to grow very rapidly, and to do so in areas where, historically, telephone companies were plagued by the theft of copper wires: wireless communications aren’t just convenient for the customer, but for the network as well.

In so many cases, things that were once done with complicated mechanical products are now done with solid-state electronics, or purely in software, often on the ubiquitous mobile ’phone. Of course, that phone is a product in its own right, and one that few people owned a generation ago, so it’s a product that has gone the other way: a conceptual product that has become a reality. The resources expended upon a typical mobile ’phone, the short useful life and the very low recycling rate are still causes for concern (a news item this week suggests that scavenging gold from old mobile ’phones is more rewarding than digging up the richest ores) but before we condemn them as wasteful, we need to remember all the other things that they have caused to dematerialize.

Smallest phone

You know, we might be taking dematerialisation too far, now… (sWap Nova ’phone, 2011)

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