Fashion sells and sells. Consumers can never get ahead of the game, as new seasons bring new styles and the promise of a whole new lifestyle. No wonder, then, the consumer electronics industry is becoming so fashion conscious. As a consequence we are all being trained into helplessness. We become fashion victims, eagerly waiting for the latest gadgets.
The hi-tech marketeers have certainly stolen the rag trade's clothes. Flick through any glossy weekly magazine. "It's the new look - you'll love what it does for your image," reads the copy alongside a picture of colourfully besuited models parading along a catwalk. An advert for a new perfume? Jeans? No, the Pentium II processor. And, new for spring 98, from Nokia: a "phone with a 'perfect profile' in exciting, chameleon- like colours which appear to shimmer and change colour".
Photographers crowd around another catwalk. Lights drop and dramatic music seeps across the stage. An unremarkable sight, perhaps, during fashion week in Paris, London or Milan. But this was Comdex, last autumn's international consumer electronics show, held in the glitzy image capital, Las Vegas.
Not so long ago, labels were firmly attached to the inside of clothes. They listed sensible, practical information on how to avoid cleaning catastrophes. Then came designer tags and other branding, proudly displayed for all your (less fashionable) acquaintances to admire and envy. Gadgets used to have their labels inside, too: ominously worded warnings of electrocution or patented parts. Now, however, discerning shoppers are urged to look for the all-important badges on the outside; paradoxically, it is essential that your computer has "Intel Inside" outside. And, as with all successful designer brands, there are fakes - or clones, as the industry likes to call them.
The fashion ethos, though, affects a great deal more than a product's ads, launch and logo. Much effort is put into its looks. Some devices are self-consciously stylish. Take Apple Computer. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary by releasing a limited edition, elite Mac. This chrome- finished vision was sleek and stylish enough to win an award from ID magazine. For hi-fi fanatics with large disposable incomes, Bang and Olufson provides products that are visually inspiring. And just as with haute couture, the styling trends of exclusive versions are soon mimicked by mass-market models.
If the most important thing about a consumer electronics device were how it looked, we would indeed have some successful products; your video recorder may be impossible to programme, but it looks fantastic. In the real world, however, other aspects of design need serious attention - we may be losing out by having a market that is fashion led, rather than consumer led.
Take that ubiquitous mass-market gadget, the mobile phone. Its appearance has evolved dramatically over the last 10 years. Gone are the blatant brick shapes, replaced by discreet, curved handsets (with the most expensive models being the most stylish). Meanwhile, little has changed to make them more useful and usable. So, sophisticated mobile phones can play Bach - or even let you play a game or two. To do something useful, such as diverting calls, the user must still navigate a maze of menu choices.
In fact, the increase of fashion features on some consumer electronics means that it is impossible to discover just what a device can do. This has resulted in many devices having a "demo" feature. Pressing the demo button unleashes a dazzling performance - a virtual catwalk - of flashing LEDs, strange bleeps and intriguing messages. This may not improve your understanding of the device; it need only persuade you to purchase the machine and take it home.
As with all fashion commodities, gadgets also come with built-in obsolescence. Constantly, if you believe the full-page adverts, everything gets faster and more powerful. Last month's "ultimate deal" is now a slow, unsophisticated dud in need of an upgrade. Personal computers, we are told, have much more processing power than Nasa used to send man to the moon. So, what else will you do with your machine today? This may lead to the conclusion that most "innovations" do not make the buyer's life less complicated or more enjoyable; they simply fuel change, urging consumers to keep up or miss out.
By buying into this fashion-centred approach, we are allowing ourselves to be cheated of a brighter future. "Let's make things better," urge the adverts of one manufacturer. It is not alone in evangelising the techno- Utopia of unlimited potential; or, as Microsoft puts it, "Where do you want to go today?"
However, the reality being engineered is rather different. Technology is being undervalued - just another transient throwaway. Instead of being a positive force for change, it fosters greed, envy and a desire for more. Instead of an understanding of how technology can serve us at home or work, we fall into a kind of idolatry: cyber-idolatry.
What can we do, then, to make sure that it is real needs, not the manufactured needs of fashion, that drive the development of consumer electronics? One place to start looking is in the untrendy, fashion-free end of the market.
Sold in uniformly matt black boxes, hi-fi separates are marketed solely on how well they do their job. Serious-looking people in specialist stores usher clients into soundproof rooms, where they are free to make a choice solely on how well the equipment in question can reproduce sound. One specialist hi-fi dealership, Richer Sounds, proudly displays the "Real Hi-Fi" logo in its catalogues. The people behind "Real Hi-Fi" see it as their aim to promote hi-fi made up of "individual components built for their sound performance, rather than the number of flashing lights". The anoraks are banding together to strike a blow against the fashion gurus.
This is one, isolated example of semi-self-regulation, ensuring that the customers receive goods they want, not those they think they want. It would be naive, however, to assume that the rest of the electronics industry will follow suit without a little encouragement. For some idea of how we might start to change the situation, it is worth taking a look at a more mature technology market, the car industry.
Choosing which car to buy is not only a decision about fashion; it also involves decisions about practical requirements. Cars can be successfully marketed on their looks or on their practicability, allowing buyers to make a fashion statement (by buying, say, a cabriolet) as well as to purchase a car that satisfies more practical requirements (having, say, a diesel engine). This is possible because independent standards have been developed which quantify attributes such as emission levels, fuel efficiency and safety features.
Work by external consumer groups has forced the industry to become more accountable and has resulted in the development of cars which are likely to suit the real needs of the consumer. Having this model-independent "vocabulary" of standards allows ordinary customers to ask pertinent questions about any car they may want to purchase - they can express their needs without becoming bamboozled by technology. Once they know that a given car will meet their practical requirements, they are free to make fashion- led decisions about such details as body shape and paint colour.
When buying consumer electronics, however, there is no standard vocabulary, no way for the customer to discuss a product independently of the technology contained in the device. Many products come adorned with impressive-sounding, techno-centric phrases. One new video recorder boasts "multi intelligent control". But what does this mean? Surely any model needs more than one member of the family to fiddle with it before the thing works. One popular CD unit announces it uses "digital sampling". This is the equivalent of a car manufacturer labelling its latest model with the phrase "comes with wheels".
Just as with the car industry, we now need consumer associations to be proactive in the way they treat the electronics manufacturers. Most consumers do not understand words such as "synchro dub system" which they see written on gadgets; they need to see features presented in some rational and comparable way. Rather than seasonal batches of "fad phrases" , we need to see standard benchmarks against which all equipment could be tested. Each model could then be sold on how well it meets those standards, providing impetus for the manufacturers to worry less about fashion and more about building equipment that is really useful.
In particular, the area of "ease of use" needs to be properly tackled. Products proclaim themselves "easy to use" or "user friendly" simply because they have some new feature such as a video with on-screen menus, or a mobile phone with single-key menu navigation. But as many of us have found to our cost, it is only after we get home that we realise how difficult it is even to set the timer. If an independent body were to develop a test based on real consumers performing real tasks, then products could be objectively graded for their "user friendliness". So, for example, if 80 per cent of users were unable to use 70 per cent of the features in a set time, claims of "friendliness" would look a little hollow.
This is all very well, but perhaps we have the consumer electronics we deserve. Most of us are content to make do with telephones and VCRs that do some of what we want some of the time. Electronic devices have become so cheap (especially in the case of mobile phone handsets, subsidised by networks) that we do buy them as fashion accessories, to be discarded when the next generation comes along. They are bought not so much for what they can do for us but for what they say about us. And, anyhow, it's hardly a matter of life and death, is it?
Just remember that, should you ever find your car insurance premium has rocketed because, instead of watching the road, you were trying to sort out the RDS settings on your new car radio.
Matt Jones and Gary Marsden work at the Computing Science Interaction Design Centre, Middlesex University.