Years ago a small supplement would tumble from national newspaper magazines offering a diverse range of time-saving and futuristic gadgets which were distinguished by their pointlessness. Could there really be a market for bath ladders for spiders or heated eyelash curlers? Apparently not, given that the Innovations Catalogue folded seven years ago.
Despite the loss of a useful outlet for useless products, our love of gadgets has continued to grow and shows no sign of dimming. The average British household had 17 electrical appliances – television, hi-fi, vacuum cleaner etc – in the 1970s; by the 2000s that had risen to 47 with the addition of Playstations, electric fans and juicers, according to a government report four years ago, The Rise of the Machines.
Even in an economic slump in a modern industrialised society, we hanker for gadgets which promise to make life easier or more exciting. It's just that we don't always need them.
The review website Reevoo last year asked shoppers to rank the 20 most useless gadgets. Top of the pile was the electric nail file, presumably bought by the sort of shopper too busy to grate their own cheese.
Which was a shame because the runner-up surely deserved the acclaim: laser-guided scissors. (The designers could see a laser beam emanating from a pair of scissors would help someone cut a straight line, but overlooked a flaw: that the laser would waver when the scissors were moved.)
Electric candles were third followed by the Soda Stream, foot spa, fondue set, hair crimpers and egg boiler. The teasmade unfairly appeared at number 13 in my opinion, but how could one fault numbers 19 and 20 – the towel warmer and back scratcher, except to wonder why they weren't ranked higher?
Reevoo put the life of a gadget at just over one year because 60 per cent of people found many of them to be a waste of time; by the time you have lifted the back-scratcher, you realised you could have done the job yourself.
At the other extreme are devices so complex that they befuddle their users. Despite the ever-increasing sophistication of gadgets their makers seem to forget that as technology becomes more popular it should be simpler to use. Early adapters are keen and knowledgeable. The rest of us need an idiot-proof iPod/Satnav/HDTV.
Unsurprisingly, a survey by Stuff magazine revealed this week that "we don't know our MP3s from our DABs" when it comes to using the £3,000 worth of electrical goods packing out the average home. While people are comfortable using traditional household gadgets such as microwaves, washing machines and DVD players, "they are flummoxed by newer inventions such as Blackberrys, DAB Radios, HDTVs and HD set top boxes" and only use half the functions available.
According to the magazine, which naturally wishes to tout its expertise in the acquisition and use of such things, the difference between what we have paid for and what we actually use is £52bn pounds.
So what's the moral of the story? Since time-saving devices can be counter-productive, perhaps you should opt out. But you might like to take note of another tip from the Stuff survey.
IT professionals were asked how they dealt with problematic gadgets. One in 10 "will just ignore a product's function if they can't get it to work, while one in five will rip up or throw away the instruction manual in frustration when they get confused". The same number hit the thing to make it work.
Heroes & Villains
Despite not doing many things that could help the environment, like putting lids on its freezers, Britain's biggest supermarket does do some good behind the scenes work.
This week it announced it would experiment with plastic bottles for own-brand spirits to save pollution. While glass has a nicer feel, encasing brandy in plastic will save 200,000kg of packaging. Tesco has also launched the lightest ever wine bottle, weighing 300g – 30 per cent lighter than its previous lightest own-label bottles.
Personally, I consider Tetley to be a foamy, weak ale. But at least it came from Yorkshire. Until now. The Campaign for Real Ale this week expressed its discontent at Carlsberg UK's relocation of Tetley's brewing from Leeds to Marston's at Wolverhampton. Carlsberg don't do geography lessons, but if they did, mused Camra's vice-chairman Bob Stukins, they would probably realise dislocating brands from their heritage dismays customers.