Then (2005)

I made this self-portrait back in 2005 to show what a key role digital devices had come to play in our lifestyles. For the shot, I gathered up every object in my house that contained a microchip---including my dog. (Click "Hide Captions" below for a clearer look.)

Now (2013)

Here's a modern re-enactment of the 2005 photo, with my current menagerie of digital gadgets. Thanks mainly to the iPhone and the iPad, which take the place of so many other dedicated devices, the herd has been thinned to about 15 objects. (Click "Hide Captions" below for a clearer look.)

Where Have All the Gadgets Gone?

A remarkable shift is taking place right under our noses. The universe of electronic devices in our homes and offices has stopped expanding, and has in fact begun to shrink. At the same time, our productivity continues to rise and our information, entertainment, and learning options keep exploding. In other words, we’re getting more stuff done—using less actual stuff.

For the graphic proof, check out the two pictures above, showing my own array of digital gadgets. The first one was taken in May 2005. The second was taken yesterday.

The idea behind both photos was to document every object I own that contains a microchip. Compared to the 2013 photo, the 2005 photo is positively cluttered with electronic paraphernalia. But it’s not as if I’ve adopted a Spartan existence or stopped doing all the things I used to do. I’m just doing them using fewer devices—and I bet you are too.

Exactly how this consolidation has come about, and which devices have emerged as today’s workhorses, is a question I’ll come back to in a moment. First, a bit of backstory on the two photographs.

There’s a fantastic coffee-table book that came out in 1994 called Material World: A Global Family Portrait, with photos by Peter Menzel and text by Charles Mann. The idea was to get families around the world to pose in front of their homes with all their earthly belongings arrayed around them. The book is still a favorite of mine because it provides such an intimate, revealing look at how families lived in places like Albania, Iceland, Japan, Kuwait, Mali, Mongolia, the United States and Vietnam. The contrasts were obviously stunning. A family in Haiti owned little more than a goat and a few sticks of furniture, while a family in Texas needed an entire cul-de-sac to hold their household possessions.

In early 2005, after I had worked with Mann on a couple of magazine features for MIT Technology Review, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to repeat the Material World project, but with a focus on digital objects. As a demonstration, I started with my own household, gathering up every object that included a microchip and posing for the first self-portrait above. (My dog Rhody counts because he’s got a HomeAgain RFID chip implanted under his skin.) I put the photo up on Flickr, where it has become, by far, the most-viewed photo I ever published.

I remember being surprised back in 2005, once I had laid everything out, at how much electronic junk I actually owned. But here’s the funny thing: over the next few years, I stopped needing most of it.

When you compare the two photos, it’s easier to tally up the things that haven’t changed, because the list is a lot shorter. I still have a laptop and an external monitor. I still have a television (though the old Sony Trinitron with a cathode-ray tube inside has been replaced by an LCD HDTV). I still have a printer, and a land-line phone (cordless now), and a smartphone (an iPhone 5, which makes the Treo 650 from 2005 look as old as Betsy Ross).

Almost everything else has been slimmed down, jettisoned as unnecessary to my lifestyle, or consolidated into some other device.

Music: I used to have two CD players, a tape deck, a turntable, a tuner, and a pair of loudspeakers. Now I have an iPhone and a Jambox.

Video: As the input devices for my television, I used to have a DVR, a VCR, three DVD players, and a cable box. Now I just have an Apple TV.

Personal devices: My iPad and iPhone have taken the place of a whole slew of older gadgets, including an iPod, a Rio MP3 player, a Ceiva electronic picture frame, a digital voice recorder, a PDA, a digital wristwatch, and a couple of point-and-shoot digital cameras. I got a Kindle a couple of years after the first photo was taken, but now I don’t use that either, thanks to the Kindle app on my iPad.

Gaming: I used to have a Playstation 2, and shortly after the 2005 photo was taken I got an Xbox 360. But I gradually lost interest in console games, and when my Xbox blew up, I never bothered to get it fixed. Now I just play games on my iPad.

Internet: I used to have a DSL modem and a separate wireless modem; then I got cable Internet and switched to a cable modem. Now I have an Airport Express, hooked into Webpass.

Kitchen: I used to have a super-fancy electronic rice cooker from Asia, but I don’t eat rice much anymore. My coffeemaker, which has a built-in digital timer, is my only electronic kitchen gadget now, aside from the built-in appliances. [Update 3/16/13: Yes, I still own a microwave, but it’s a built-in one now, as I implied but didn’t spell out in the previous sentence, so I couldn’t include it in the photo.]

Housecleaning: I used to have a Roomba vacuum cleaner, but it died. Now I have concrete floors, so I sweep by hand.

There are two categories where my digital inventory has seen the most dramatic change. The first is personal technology, where smartphones and tablets have reached the point where they can credibly replace a slew of older single-purpose devices like cameras. (Seattle entrepreneur Dan Shapiro has called this the good enough threshold.) I’ve written before about the information devices I can’t live without, and the number keeps going down.

The second category is the “home entertainment system,” a once-lucrative market for consumer electronics makers like Sony, Hitachi, and Pioneer. Certainly, you can still go out and buy a cabinet full of audiophile turntables and tape decks and CD players and tuners and hook them up to a $4,000 pair of Bang & Olufsen speakers. But why bother, when you can just power on the Jambox or stick in some earbuds and head to iTunes, Pandora, Rdio, Slacker, Spotify, or Stitcher?

Has your own biome of electronic gadgets been going through similar mass extinction event? I’ll wager a bunch that it has—and I don’t see a new Cambrian explosion of gadgets coming anytime soon (except, perhaps, in the area of personal health monitoring devices like Fitbit and Nike Plus). Marc Andreessen famously said back in 2011 that software is eating the world. But in the home, it would be more accurate to say that smartphones and tablets are eating everything else.

In the comments, let us know how the story is playing out in your home.

Postscript: For the detail-oriented among you, here’s a full rundown of the items in the 2005 and 2013 photos.


2Wire DSL Modem

ESA Portable DVD Player

Panasonic Portable DVD Player

Kenmore Elite Sensor QuickTouch Microwave Oven

Sony Discman Portable CD Player

Panasonic KX-TS108W Desk Telephone

Sanyo ECJ-D55S Rice Cooker

Sony ICF-C793 Radio Alarm Clock

Dell Dimension 2400 PC

Netgar MR814v2 Wireless Modem

Dell E152FP 15-inch LCD Monitor

iRobot Roomba Red Robot Vacuum Cleaner

Apple iPod

Ceiva Electronic Picture Frame

Sony Trinitron 28-inch Television

Dell Inspiron 8600 Laptop Computer

Technis Quartz SL1301 Turntable

Kenwood KXW8060 Double Cassette Player

Yamaha HTR-5550 Tuner

Sony CPD-C315 5-CD Compact Disc Player

Sony Playstation 2

Sharp VC-H810 VCR

Motorola cable box

Replay TV 2000 DVR

Boston HD7 Loudspeakers

Minolta Dimage F100 Digital Camera

HP Printer-Fax-Copier

Brother label maker

Handspring Treo 300 smartphone

Handspring Treo 650 smarthpone

Rio Diamond MP3 Player

Sony ICD-S10 Digital Voice Recorder

Sony Clie PEG-T415 Personal Organizer

Swatch Beat 0033 Internet Wristwatch

HomeAgain Pet Microchip



Samsung B2333OH LCD Monitor

Seagate GoFlex 2TB External Hard Drive

Jawbone Jambox Wireless Speaker

Cuisinart Coffeemaker

Canon Pixma Multifunction Printer/Scanner

Apple Macbook Pro (early 2011)

Apple iPad (third generation)

Apple iPhone 5

Sony Vixia Camcorder

Sharp Aquos 32-inch HDTV

Apple TV (hidden behind me in the photo)

Apple Airport Express (not shown)

HomeAgain Pet Microchip

Canon Powershot S5 IS (not shown—was using it to take this picture)

Eton Emergency Radio (not shown; forgot to grab it for the photo)

Frigidaire Gallery Microwave (built-in, belongs to landlord, couldn’t rip it out for this photo!)


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40 Responses to Where Have All the Gadgets Gone?

  1. BFBoston says:

    Great article, Wade. While I’m not quite a technophile, I too have streamlined my “stuff” through the years; all my music, books, recipes and photos are now stored electronically vs. taking up physical space in my home (or at the junkyard). Thankfully, most of the “gadgets” I’ve accumulated are for food prep.

    A welcome follow-up article (or future Mobile Madness topic!) would be: Where Do All The Dead Devices Go?

    Consumers and the media are gaga over new versions of mobile devices. Makers, such as Apple and Samsung, are churning out newer and better devices a few times a year, with stronger/better/faster components. Meanwhile carriers like AT&T, Sprint, etc are constantly updating their technology infrastructure to keep up with escalating digital demands.

    While this is an incredible feat, it’s also scary from an environmental perspective.

    It makes me wonder: What’s being done for consumers and corporations to safely and easily discard outdated devices? What happens to the old servers, routers and other hardware that keep “The Cloud” afloat?

    • decora says:

      do a google image search for ‘e-waste china’ or ‘e-waste children’. then go watch this documentary called Oliver Twist

    • mobilemann says:

      Youtube the VICE documentary on Ghana. you’ll see where a lot of your computers are.

    • BFBoston says:

      I did some poking around, and found this 2008 piece about “e-waste” via ’60 Minutes’

      The CEO who was interviewed, Brandon Richter, was convicted in December 2012 of fraud by the US Federal Court His sentencing is scheduled for April 2013.

      Meanwhile in February 2013 the US International Trade Commission just released this report about Used Electronic Products:

      What’s interesting is how little reporting there is with main stream media outlet within the past year or so about where our used devices go nowadays.

      It would be great to see X-conomy do a piece (or more!), given it’s on the forefront of promoting technological trends that best exemplify today’s high-tech economy.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Thanks Billy. The state of the e-waste disposal industry is a great topic for an article — we’ll do something about that as soon as we can.

    • pwndecaf says:

      I still have everything I ever bought, so I guess I have no e-waste, just e-stuff. I have no wish to get rid of all that stuff. I just wish for a way to put it away and still leave it accessible

      I’m a hoarder, but I still like the old stuff. Some more than others, but…

  2. Rodrigo_Girao says:

    If you put your old Trinitron and your new LCD side by side, I bet the Trinitron would give the better picture! (Now a plasma would be a different story…)

  3. wmac says:

    You have become more wise and experienced otherwise people can still find and buy as much junk as they want.

  4. Really. says:

    Kind of fluffing it a bit aren’t you, suddenly your cable modem/whatever you use now is not counted, you know longer do some of the stuff you used to (console gaming). Your situation changed with concrete floors and habits changed by cooking differently. Yes the number of devices are decreasing but that is not what is actually truethfully shown here. Not picturing stuff to make your point was also weak. A home theater system is still much better than some doc at reproducing sound though with the output from an iPhone you may not notice. What is shown here is your changes in behaviour and situation much more than the point you are trying to make.

    • mobilemann says:

      he could have replaced console gaming. I see a laptop capable of windows there, i see an ipad. Jist of his comment was fair though.

      home theaters are also smaller. they used to rock component stereo’s etc.

      While i agree his exaguratting the pictures doesn’t help in some ways, he’s right that convergance devices are taking multiple roles and fullfilling them these days.

    • minnesota linux says:

      I’m not sold on the article either; Mr. Roush’s devices seem to disappear based on changing habits, not convergence of functionality (which certainly exists). No way a Jambox and iFad can compete with a quality set of speakers and components.

      • These were my thoughts as well. Getting rid of the turntable/receiver/speaker, and replacing them with a glorified ipod dock, is a sign that you have gotten OLD, not a sign that there are less gadgets in the home.

  5. You don’t use a microwave anymore? Fair enough, but that’s not really representative of the typical household.

    • mobilemann says:

      yay for people who only came here to make snide comments, and totally ignore the basic premise of this post.

      • Byte Master says:

        Same goes for the console… a PS2 has been replaced by a Wii (U), PS3 or Xbox 360 for most people. Yes, you can play cheapy games on your iOS or Android device… but it’s no match for a proper console.

        There are a *few* more-or-less obsolete devices mentioned, like the portable DVD players (don’t know why he owned two) but most people have stopped using them… BUT if you have them integrated in your car, you need to count those too. Cassette players, sure. They are obsolete. Listing both an iPod and an Diamond Rio is another case of hey-I-own-two duplication.

        The other thing is the “cordless phones” – a lot of people only use their cell phones and get rid of their landlines, so yes. That would be another device you won’t see as abundant now as you did in 2005.

        People now mostly own a PVR integrated into their cable box, so yes, the VCR (non-HD capable anyway) is obsolete.

        Roomba – these things haven’t been as successful in cleaning as originally purported, not many owned one anyway.

        But “where have all the gadgets gone” is not something that has been on my mind at all.

      • JW says:

        He is pointing out that the premise is flawed and is not backed up by evidence given. Like other comments have said, the article boils down to “look I don’t do anything I used to do, so I have less gadgets” and not about convergence.

        • mobilemann says:

          I just think you guys are taking the article to seriously, guess we will have to agree to disagree —
          Sent from Mailbox for iPhone

          • Anon Cow says:

            well, he is the one that posted the article. skimming the headlines and pictures, as is the norm for a first glance at an article, these discrepencies immediatly jump out at those of us that were truely interested. i guess if he just needed to post an article to meet his monthly quota, and it was not actually intended to be read, then we are taking it too seriously…

    • Wade Roush says:

      Wow, a lot of people here and at Slashdot have commented on the microwave. I still have one, it’s just built into the kitchen now, so I couldn’t include it in the “now” photo. I’ve updated the story to make this clearer.

  6. Blade says:

    … like.. duh? obvious article is horribly obvious.

  7. Man that dog hasn’t aged well. Looks ancient.

  8. Doodles says:

    8 years? Dude you look like you’ve went back to the future. You look like you’ve aged at least 15 years.

  9. minnesota linux says:

    i think he looks nearly the same, or perhaps even better. in the older photo his angles look sharp and oldmanly. in the newer photo he looks healthy.

  10. Willy says:

    He grew up and stopped playing video games.. This has nothing to do with decreasing devices in the household and more to do with his interested..

    • tchernik says:

      Agree. I am done with my recent graduate/new professional interest of buying consoles and playing all those “groundbreaking” games that tend to come in loads these days.

      The novelty of being a money-earning, tax-paying adult has worn off by now.

      And I got a life that started demanding more of my money and attention.

      Synthesizing: yes, you grow older and your priorities change.

  11. Stephen Sharp says:

    You’re looking at the dog you idiot. And tbh, the dog’s looking pretty good even though he’s aged 56 years.

  12. I enjoyed the book Material World as well. I love the time line/social photography projects. When my kids were under a year I took a pic of them each month on the couch and then stuck all 12 of the pictures onto one couch at the end of the year. I wish I had started another project after they had turned one.

  13. Decade says:

    One of my desires is to see microchips become invisible. In Wade’s example, there is no DSL modem, but it has been replaced by a Webpass router in the basement. My laundry machine gained a microchip last year. At my workplace, the thermostats, the ovens, and the lighting system all gained microchips.

    Next, I want the devices networked, so the workplace thermostats stop warring against each other.

  14. aoeu aoeu says:

    you also have perhaps 3 hundred thousand fewer hair than you were 8 years ago

  15. It’s called convergence, silly. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? :P

  16. Anon Cow says:

    Not sure the microwave counts as a gadget there. You may no longer want microwaved food, but I doubt the iPad has anything real to do w/ that.

    • Wade Roush says:

      The concept for the 2005 photos was to include everything in the house that contained a microchip, not just “gadgets” per se. And as mentioned above, I still have a microwave.

  17. xStatiCa says:

    You are just getting older… welcome to the club.

  18. How are you printing labels with your iPad? I tried, but mine seems to be broken, or I can’t find the label emitter slot. I noticed your Brother P-touch labelmaker is now gone, so I assumed it was the iPad that replaced it.

    And how are you microwaving food in the “now” photo? Is it using radiation from cellphones? I need help, because I’m craving popcorn and pictures of it on my iPhone aren’t doing it for me.

    • PS: I agree that the phones and tablets are swallowing up many old CE products, but to counter your overall point that we will have fewer devices, here’s what “a guy I know” added since 2005:

      8 IP cameras
      2 NAS for redundancy and offsite
      1 Home Server for always on NAS and hosting
      1 additional wifi AP for range
      2 Homeplug connectors to get ethernet to the far room
      1 OBD diagnostics dongle for cars
      2 additional smartphones for kids
      3 additional tablets for whole family
      1 additional HD slingbox
      1 additional Tivo
      4 iPhone/3.5mm dock speakers
      1 inverter to power this stuff from car battery
      3 portable 5V battery packs
      1 additional printer/scanner
      1 smart thermostat
      3 smart deadbolts
      1 connected car
      2 smart PG&E meters
      1 WIMM smart watch
      1 Pebble smart watch (well, if it ever arrives)
      Chipped car remote fobs
      1 wireless anemometer weather center and display
      upgraded TVs
      Bluetooth keyboard
      some kids toys/games/Leapfrog stuff
      Contour helmet cam
      Zeo sleep analyzer
      Intelligent ellyptical trainer
      1 upgraded Onkyo MHL-enabled internet receiver
      2 Additional network switches
      1 AT&T microcell
      …and more

      Geez, the list keeps going on. I think I made my point. Basically, you made your claim, the Internet of Things replied, saying “Nuh uhn.”

      The “fewer total devices” notion is about as correct as the “paperless world”.

  19. Jordan Mallory says:

    I’ve been upgrading a lot of my gadgets since I like what I already have. I installed a new battery in my old iPod and just ordered new
    coffee maker parts
    . Maybe I’m stuck in my habits but I like keeping what I already have.