From smartphones to spam: 20 ways consumers’ lives have changed

While life may seem devoid of sci-fi gadgets imagined in childhood, look again. Communications, leisure and the general pursuit of value have changed massively in just a few decades writes Conor Pope

We were promised jet packs and robot cleaners by Tomorrow’s World in the 1970s and assured that the march of technology would see us passing our days in improbably white living spaces with no real work to do as our daily grind was handled by super-intelligent, but still subservient, machines.

The future hasn’t panned out quite as like that, but the technological advances over the past 40 years have been profound, and the 21st-century consumer is in a very different place as a result.

We don’t have jet packs (yet) but we’re still a whole lot better off than we once were.


1 Email When was the last time you sent an actual letter? Email has made communication with anyone, anywhere and at any time effortless and much, much cheaper than it once was. Do you even know how much a stamp costs now? Admittedly sending a “wish you were here” text message while on your holliers is not really the same as a postcard, but it’s a lot less hassle. And now that the cost of sending texts and talking on our phones while abroad has plummeted, we don’t have to worry about bill shock.

2 Streaming On-demand television and streaming services have made life much better. While Netflix has its critics, and the content can be a bit samey, at €6.99 a month it represents great value for money – particularly when compared with the price of a Breaking Bad box set.

More than that, streaming services and catch-up players mean we are no longer at the mercy of television programmers and can watch what we like when we like, with the added bonus of no ads. It is also possible to (legally, obviously) download newly released movies, so we no longer experience that disappointment when a film is not in a video library. And late-return fees are a thing of memory.

3 Newspapers Hello to the elephant in the room. Next month The Irish Times will celebrate the 20th birthday of its online edition. The Irish Times on the web (as we used to call it) was launched without fanfare – seriously, the site’s first tentative steps into the new world did not merit a single mention in the actual newspaper – in October 1994.

The absence of coverage was no doubt because, back then, no one had a notion where the world was going and where it was taking this – and every other – newspaper. Today there are multiple editions, for phones, tablets and computers, and the once-static text has been complemented by video and audio as consumers demand more content in real time.

4 Spam Sometimes it seems like email’s ugly cousin is going to choke the world. There are 14.5 billion spam emails sent every day, more than half of which are trying to sell us something. Phishing scams and emails from the widows of sub-Saharan dictators with suitcases of diamonds just for you, and goods of an adult nature make up the vast majority of spam. There is nothing good about it.

5 YouTube Adorable kittens and babies doing cute things, middle-aged men from South Korea dancing hilariously to hilariously bad music, Jacques Brel crying as he sings Ne me Quitte pas, buckets of ice water being poured over millions of people in the name of charity and access to almost everything that has ever been broadcast anywhere ever for free. What’s not to love?

6 Music Hard to believe now, but there was a time when Irish teenagers could only buy the music that the handful of record shop owners near them bothered to order, and they had to pay through the nose for that limited stock too. Today, almost every piece of music commercially recorded over the past 100 years can be bought, streamed or otherwise sourced in seconds. U2 can even drop brand new albums on to your iPhone without you asking for it. Although that is a mixed blessing.

7 Smartphones They are just getting smarter and smarter. Already they make us fitter, happier and more productive (or less productive, if you think relentlessly tweeting and checking your fantasy football team is a waste of time) but they’re only in their infancy. Much of the attention at the recent Apple launch was directed towards the devices – the iPhone 6 and 6 plus and the Apple watch, as well as the free U2 album – but the game-changing feature was Apple Pay, which will, before you know it, convert your phone into your bank and render cash and cards obsolete.

8 Clouds There was a time when the worst thing about losing your phone was losing your contacts. Now everything is stored in the cloud, which means all those pictures you have on your phone are safe.

9 Books What future does the book have? The emergence of the ebook has not had quite the same disruptive impact on that business as has been witnessed in the music and news spheres, but when you can buy a device that holds thousands of books for less than €100, and an ebook for half the price of the “real” book, the end does seem nigh for what was once the most perfect of technologies.

10 Shopping There is virtually nothing you can’t buy online. There are more than half a billion different products for sale on eBay and Amazon. com alone and hundreds of thousands of other retailers making money selling stuff online.

11 Banking While the haste with which bankers have been pushing us out of their branches has been unseemly, online banking is much better for us and our welfare. It makes us manage our money better too.

12 Attention span Writing in the Atlantic magazine in 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote about how the internet was rewiring our brains. “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory,” he wrote. When we have all the world’s information at our fingertips and multiple channels competing for our attention all the time, it can be hard to concentrate.

13 Social media It might not be great for our concentration, but the social media revolution has empowered consumers like almost nothing else. It has given people a louder voice and a better platform to research brands. It also gives access to companies across multiple platforms, which – at least sometimes – improves customer service.

14 Always on There was a time when work ended when people left the office or factory floor or field. Not so much now. In April it was reported that an agreement had been signed by French unions and employers requiring “a million” employees to switch off their work phones “after 6pm”.

The story was wrong. There was no such requirement and no time mentioned in the agreement. Instead they agreed to a “right of disconnecting”, which would see the employee given “the possibility of disconnecting his work communication tools”. Many Irish workers would like such a right, but as long as people have smartphones, other people will think nothing of contacting them at any time.

15 Venting It is easier than previous generations would have thought possible for consumers to criticise and to praise companies that have wronged or delighted them. Trolling, on the other hand, is not such a good thing. It started on bulletin boards but has spread virus-like across all social networks. Everyone seems angrier now. Wouldn’t it be better if we all just relaxed a bit?

16 Vouchers Nearly two-thirds of Irish adults now use online coupon services such as Groupon and Living Social. After three years of mails about cheap tat you don’t want, they have lost some of their lustre, but, used well, they will save you money and introduce you to new things. Sign up to Mydealpage.ie and you can get all the deals from all the sites bunched into a single mail, customised the way you want.

And download the Vouchercloud app. It relies on GPS technology to find deals and discounts near you. After you have trawled the offers, you can choose the one you want and download it to your phone.

17 Privacy’s gone You are being tracked like never before. Everything you do and say about any brand in the online sphere is probably stored somewhere, and, if you do something stupid in a public place, someone is almost certainly going to film it and stick it on the web. Privacy is a thing of the past.

18 Health Okay, so looking up your symptoms on Google is almost certainly going to convince you that you have cancer when you really have is a cold. But you can also work out your ideal BMI in seconds, buy weighing scales that will measure your body fat and tell you if you are retaining water, while wearable appliances will keep you alive for longer (possibly).

You can monitor your sleep, your activity and your vital signs using a watch linked to your phone. The health revolution is only just starting. At this rate, we’ll live forever.

19 Cameras The digital camera has made us all better photographers, because we can see, in real time, the results of our pointing and clicking. It is cheaper and faster and better – but it has stripped the photograph of a lot of its magic. There was something exciting about taking pictures but not getting them developed for weeks and then happening upon all manner of craziness. You can print photos at home if you have a decent photo printer, although the cost of the ink is very high.

20 Shopping around It used to be the preserve of financially savvy souls with too much time on their hands, but now it can be done without leaving the couch or office desk. Bonkers.ie allows you to compare prices for gas and electricity, or check bank accounts and other financial products, while ComReg’s Callcosts.ie can help you figure out how to get the best phone or broadband deal. There is also all manner of apps to scan barcodes of items in shops and find the best prices online.

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