Author of the popular book Freakonomics Daniel Hamermesh writes a regular column for The New York Times online featuring his witty log of counterintuitive economic observations.
In his book, for instance, he tells of a daycare center that, when faced with parents habitually late for picking up their kids, implemented a "punishment" fee policy to keep parents on time. Instead, however, parent pick-up tardiness actually increased, and the authors speculate that the "fee" actually served as an incentive for parents to be late because a) it ridded them of any guilt they felt for being late (since they were paying the fee), and b) the fee wasn't high enough, evidently.
Well this weekend Hamermesh recounted a recent trip to a nice hotel where he was stunned to find television screens in front of the urinals in the bathroom. I'm frankly stunned that he was stunned. Anyway, he mused in his column that perhaps as personal income goes up, so does a person's likelihood of installing media in their bathroom.
Color me unimpressed. I don't think it has to do with incomes rising so much as it has to do with technology prices falling. It's just not expensive anymore to put a television or any media anywhere one wants. The city of Shenendoah outside The Woodlands north of Houston has free Wi-Fi for all its residents. Soon they won't be exceptional for that at all.
Home builders now wire homes for surround sound -- basic homes -- because it costs them next to nothing. Production builders in recent years have been building niches for televisions in master bathrooms regularly, complete with cable hook-ups. A client recently told me of a friend in an older home who installed a television screen behind their master bathroom mirror (it shows through when the TV is on).
This isn't because people are getting rich. It's because technology is becoming ever more affordable. Cell phones used to be exotic, the idea of PC's on every desk used to be outrageous, and now we're entering an age where the desktop itself may go extinct and all software will be hosted and operated on the Internet. Check out live.com or google.com -- it's already started.
The idea is that technology is not an amenity like a swimming pool or wine cellar to be found in exclusive or more expensive homes. Instead, technology is like an amenity that starts out exclusive but then becomes a standard in short order. When my 2001 car was brand new, its navigation system was pioneering. I'm still grateful to have it, but nowadays it's far behind navigation systems that one can get inexpensively in a cell phone.
So rich or not, the day is fast coming when we'll all be watching television and surfing the Internet in our bathrooms -- and frankly anywhere else we can catch a signal. It's not a sign of wealth. It's a sign of the times.