A remarkable shift is taking place right under our noses. The universe of electronic devices in our homes and offices has stopped expanding, and has in fact begun to shrink. At the same time, our productivity continues to rise and our information, entertainment, and learning options keep exploding. In other words, we’re getting more stuff done—using less actual stuff.
For the graphic proof, check out the two pictures above, showing my own array of digital gadgets. The first one was taken in May 2005. The second was taken yesterday.
The idea behind both photos was to document every object I own that contains a microchip. Compared to the 2013 photo, the 2005 photo is positively cluttered with electronic paraphernalia. But it’s not as if I’ve adopted a Spartan existence or stopped doing all the things I used to do. I’m just doing them using fewer devices—and I bet you are too.
Exactly how this consolidation has come about, and which devices have emerged as today’s workhorses, is a question I’ll come back to in a moment. First, a bit of backstory on the two photographs.
There’s a fantastic coffee-table book that came out in 1994 called Material World: A Global Family Portrait, with photos by Peter Menzel and text by Charles Mann. The idea was to get families around the world to pose in front of their homes with all their earthly belongings arrayed around them. The book is still a favorite of mine because it provides such an intimate, revealing look at how families lived in places like Albania, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Mali, Mongolia, the United States and Vietnam. The contrasts were obviously stunning. A family in Haiti owned little more than a goat and a few sticks of furniture, while a family in Texas needed an entire cul-de-sac to hold their household possessions.
In early 2005, after I had worked with Mann on a couple of magazine features for MIT Technology Review, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to repeat the Material World project, but with a focus on digital objects. As a demonstration, I started with my own household, gathering up every object that included a microchip and posing for the first self-portrait above. (My dog Rhody counts because he’s got a HomeAgain RFID chip implanted under his skin.) I put the photo up on Flickr, where it has become, by far, the most-viewed photo I ever published.
I remember being surprised back in 2005, once I had laid everything out, at how much electronic junk I actually owned. But here’s the funny thing: over the next few years, I stopped needing most of it.
When you compare the two photos, it’s easier to tally up the things that haven’t changed, because the list is a lot shorter. I still have a laptop and an external monitor. I still have a television (though the old Sony Trinitron with a cathode-ray tube inside has been replaced by an LCD HDTV). I still have a printer, and a land-line phone (cordless now), and a smartphone (an iPhone 5, which makes the Treo 650 from 2005 look as old as Betsy Ross).
Almost everything else has been slimmed down, jettisoned as unnecessary to my lifestyle, or consolidated into some other device.
Music: I used to have two CD players, a tape deck, a turntable, a tuner, and a pair of loudspeakers. Now I have an iPhone and a Jambox.
Video: As the input devices for my television, I used to have a DVR, a VCR, three DVD players, and a cable box. Now I just have an Apple TV.
Personal devices: My iPad and iPhone have taken the place of a whole slew of older gadgets, including an iPod, a Rio MP3 player, a Ceiva electronic picture frame, a digital voice recorder, a PDA, a digital wristwatch, and a couple of point-and-shoot digital cameras. I got a Kindle a couple of years after the first photo was taken, but now I don’t use that either, thanks to the Kindle app on my iPad.
Gaming: I used to have a Playstation 2, and shortly after the 2005 photo was taken I got an Xbox 360. But I gradually lost interest in console games, and when my Xbox blew up, I never bothered to get it fixed. Now I just play games on my iPad.
Internet: I used to have a DSL modem and a separate wireless modem; then I got cable Internet and switched to a cable modem. Now I have an Airport Express, hooked into Webpass.
Kitchen: I used to have a super-fancy electronic rice cooker from Asia, but I don’t eat rice much anymore. My coffeemaker, which has a built-in digital timer, is my only electronic kitchen gadget now, aside from the built-in appliances. [Update 3/16/13: Yes, I still own a microwave, but it's a built-in one now, as I implied but didn't spell out in the previous sentence, so I couldn't include it in the photo.]
Housecleaning: I used to have a Roomba vacuum cleaner, but it died. Now I have concrete floors, so I sweep by hand.
There are two categories where my digital inventory has seen the most dramatic change. The first is personal technology, where smartphones and tablets have reached the point where they can credibly replace a slew of older single-purpose devices like cameras. (Seattle entrepreneur Dan Shapiro has called this the good enough threshold.) I’ve written before about the information devices I can’t live without, and the number keeps going down.
The second category is the “home entertainment system,” a once-lucrative market for consumer electronics makers like Sony, Hitachi, and Pioneer. Certainly, you can still go out and buy a cabinet full of audiophile turntables and tape decks and CD players and tuners and hook them up to a $4,000 pair of Bang & Olufsen speakers. But why bother, when you can just power on the Jambox or stick in some earbuds and head to iTunes, Pandora, Rdio, Slacker, Spotify, or Stitcher?
Has your own biome of electronic gadgets been going through similar mass extinction event? I’ll wager a bunch that it has—and I don’t see a new Cambrian explosion of gadgets coming anytime soon (except, perhaps, in the area of personal health monitoring devices like Fitbit and Nike Plus). Marc Andreessen famously said back in 2011 that software is eating the world. But in the home, it would be more accurate to say that smartphones and tablets are eating everything else.
In the comments, let us know how the story is playing out in your home.
Postscript: For the detail-oriented among you, here’s a full rundown of the items in the 2005 and 2013 photos.
2Wire DSL Modem
ESA Portable DVD Player
Panasonic Portable DVD Player
Kenmore Elite Sensor QuickTouch Microwave Oven
Sony Discman Portable CD Player
Panasonic KX-TS108W Desk Telephone
Sanyo ECJ-D55S Rice Cooker
Sony ICF-C793 Radio Alarm Clock
Dell Dimension 2400 PC
Netgar MR814v2 Wireless Modem
Dell E152FP 15-inch LCD Monitor
iRobot Roomba Red Robot Vacuum Cleaner
Ceiva Electronic Picture Frame
Sony Trinitron 28-inch Television
Dell Inspiron 8600 Laptop Computer
Technis Quartz SL1301 Turntable
Kenwood KXW8060 Double Cassette Player
Yamaha HTR-5550 Tuner
Sony CPD-C315 5-CD Compact Disc Player
Sony Playstation 2
Sharp VC-H810 VCR
Motorola cable box
Replay TV 2000 DVR
Boston HD7 Loudspeakers
Minolta Dimage F100 Digital Camera
Brother label maker
Handspring Treo 300 smartphone
Handspring Treo 650 smarthpone
Rio Diamond MP3 Player
Sony ICD-S10 Digital Voice Recorder
Sony Clie PEG-T415 Personal Organizer
Swatch Beat 0033 Internet Wristwatch
HomeAgain Pet Microchip
Samsung B2333OH LCD Monitor
Seagate GoFlex 2TB External Hard Drive
Jawbone Jambox Wireless Speaker
Canon Pixma Multifunction Printer/Scanner
Apple Macbook Pro (early 2011)
Apple iPad (third generation)
Apple iPhone 5
Sony Vixia Camcorder
Sharp Aquos 32-inch HDTV
Apple TV (hidden behind me in the photo)
Apple Airport Express (not shown)
HomeAgain Pet Microchip
Canon Powershot S5 IS (not shown—was using it to take this picture)
Eton Emergency Radio (not shown; forgot to grab it for the photo)
Frigidaire Gallery Microwave (built-in, belongs to landlord, couldn’t rip it out for this photo!)