When I graduated from high school, I received a state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line computer to take to college with me. It was a 386 with a whopping 124-megabyte hard drive. The first modem I ever owned, which was an internal card I installed in that very computer myself, was 2400 baud. I kept two years worth of college papers and letters on a single five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk.
My first cellular phone, purchased after I broke down on a busy highway one morning, was a piece of gray plastic the size and weight of a brick. It did not flip open; it did not send text messages; it did not do anything except allow me to make phone calls. It was ugly and ungainly. At the time, however, it wasn’t bad for a free phone offered with a cellular contract.
Years ago, before I entered sixth grade, my parents bought a new house. There was a giant television aerial suspended in the attic. The first thing we did was remove that old aerial. The second thing we did was get cable. That was decades ago; television antennas were a dying breed even then.
Recently, I purchased the thinnest, lightest television I have ever owned – a marvelous little LG flat screen. It fits in a box with a handle and can be carried with one hand like a briefcase. Before buying that LG, I had never owned a television that would not practically warp my spine when I tried to move it from room to room. I strolled through the mall with my new television carried loosely in one hand, marveling at how much the world has changed.
What do these examples of consumer technology have in common? In the case of every piece of older technology, the item became obsolete and was replaced with newer, better technology. That newer technology in some cases was more fragile than the technology it replaced, but it, too, became obsolete (and did so more quickly as the pace of advancing technology increased). In every instance, I changed, I upgraded, and I adapted not because somebody told me to, but because I wanted to upgrade. The consumer technology in my life is my choice and is also a function of competition in a free marketplace. It should not be a function of government mandate. Much as standardization helps an industry grow and develop, the government did not step in to decide the VHS-versus-Betamax debate. Blue-ray and HD DVD went to war with each other for consumer preference; George Bush did not tell us which one to buy.
By now you’ve heard, through the relentless television advertising campaign, that federal law requires all television stations to switch their broadcast signals from analog to digital by Feb. 17 of this month. According to the Boston Globe, Nielseon Co. estimates roughly six and a half million viewers aren’t ready for the switch and may lose the ability to watch their precious, precious televisions. This is despite the interminable public awareness campaign, the availability of government coupons for digital-to-analog converter boxes and the fact that those television viewers whose sets are connected to cable or satellite dishes will not be affected by the switch. In other words, only those viewers who are getting their television signal directly from an antenna will be affected. I think we can all agree that those viewers are in the minority; they represent the few among us who cling to what is now a very old-fashioned way to watch TV.
The confusion over this government-mandated switch to digital signals represents many things that are wrong with the federal government. For one, there is no compelling reason our federal government should be concerning itself with the technology used by privately owned television broadcasters, nor should it be meddling about in the ways its citizens choose to watch television. There is no credible clause in the Constitution of which I am aware that empowers the government to decide precisely what technology your television set will use. More importantly, however, is the fact that, even with years’ worth of lead time, our government cannot seem to coordinate this switch without leaving some viewers behind.
When President Obama announced his intention to delay the switch, to give unprepared viewers even more time to cope, this only created more potential problems and confusion. Fortunately, the House rejected the measure – leaving in all our mouths the bad taste of a bureaucracy run amok, even if it refused to meddle further in this instance. Problems like this are what inevitably occur when you attempt to plan centrally any facet of consumer behavior. This is because no centralized planning authority, such as our government, can respond as quickly as can millions of individual citizens making decisions for their own benefit. The seeming chaos of those millions of self-motivated, goal-directed actions results in something called spontaneous order – a pricing mechanism, a demand curve, that is far more responsive to a free market than any sort of government plan or centralized meddling.
Simply put, allowing individuals to make decisions about consumer technology – in this case, television and television services – is the only way for the market to cope adequately with innovations in the consumer technology itself. People will buy new, more advanced technology when they decide they want it and when this desire matches their ability to pay for it. The government has no business telling you what type of television to buy. You probably want a high-definition plasma or LCD flat-screen; you don’t need Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi telling you that you want it, or when you should want it, or even helping you cope with using it after the fact.