Is the digital lifestyle just for the rich?

12 Aug 2008

There are fears that a new digital divide is emerging in the form of home networks, which it seems have gone beyond the domain of some well tuned-in geeks to a must-have for middle-to-upper class homes with wads of disposable income.

Once upon a time, the aspirational lifestyle boasted the signature nice car in the drive, big house, snazzy clothes, expensive jewellery, holidays away and fancy restaurants.

But a walk around any tech store, from 3G to Currys or D.I.D., reveals that today’s aspirational life is also about large plasma TVs, digital projectors, the latest Blu-ray players, digital networks that traverse the home and, of course, high-speed broadband.

In recent weeks, I drove by a nice big house that was being renovated and amidst the carpenters’ and plumbers’ vans was a van.

During a conversation with Carphone Warehouse Ireland chief executive, Steve Mackarel, he reminisced how in the olden days families would fight over whose turn it was to use the phone. Now, that argument has shifted to whose go it is on the family laptop. No doubt Carphone’s present vision is a laptop for every member of the family. Cha-ching!

In a recent conversation with EMC chief executive, Joe Tucci, he observed: “According to most studies we have looked at, the middle class around the world will have at least a terabyte — that’s 1,000 gigabytes — in their homes in the next two to three years.” Note that he said “middle class”.

A report out today by MultiMedia Intelligence – headlined Karl Marx Be Damned, Home Networking is the Playground of the Rich – notes that initially home networking was the playtoy of the techno geeks. However, observes Mark Kirkstein, president of MultiMedia Intelligence, higher income early adopters are finding home networks are a vital part of their connected home. By 2012, home networks will migrate more heavily to upper middle-class homes, moving media home networks closer to the mainstream.

“The correlation of media home network installations and household income is uncanny,” said Kirstein. “Nearly all other demographic factors pale by comparison. There is one other key characteristic of the home network consumer: they have kids.”

While I accept there is a movement afoot to sell the digital lifestyle to the aspiration-hungry wannabes, I’m idealistic enough to believe that technology is still a democratising force for change. I think people can still enjoy the digital lifestyle without having to sit in a high-income bracket. Children from lower income families should never be allowed to fall behind their better-moneyed counterparts when it comes to technology and education.

Okay, fine, if someone can spend several grand on a massive TV or wiring up their home with fibre, that’s their business.

If you’re sad enough to queue outside a store for the latest iPhone just for bragging rights, again that’s your business – you’ve clearly got too much time on your hands and if I’m passing you by I’ll toss you a few cent out of pity.

On my point that the digital lifestyle doesn’t involve spending big bucks, devices like the Asus EeePC can be bought at Carphone Warehouse with a 3 modem for €299. Indeed, 3 recently dispensed with unwieldy contracts for broadband and now allows users to get their broadband on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Most broadband connections from Eircom, BT, Ice and Perlico include bundled Wi-Fi routers that are inexpensive to install and instantly give you a home network.

While I accept it suits the tech industry to make technology an aspirational item for the potentially super rich – heck it is a market segment after all – the evidence is there to show you that the spread of technology is a global phenomenon which transcends class.

As PC and mobile penetration stagnate in western Europe and the US, these industries are projecting most of their growth over the next few years to come from the developing world. Go figure.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years