Pando

America's next growth industry: Disconnectedness

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on July 20, 2017

From The Disruption Desk

Earlier this week I decided to treat myself to a new electric toothbrush.

I realize by admitting that I’m telegraphing my privilege: My ability to buy toothbrushes willy nilly when most of America can barely afford avocado toast.

But still, as a 37 year old man who has spent almost twenty of those years as a professional writer, I have to believe I’ve earned the right to spend my fortune as I wish. And, this past Wednesday, I wished for a new electric toothbrush.

And so I headed to Google to find a recommendation of the best electric toothbrush money could buy. The answer, according to Reviews.com…

Oral-B Black 7000 with Smartguide

Oral-B’s most advanced rechargeable toothbrush, the Black 7000, possesses high-tech features, like a Wireless SmartGuide and a pressure sensor, to provide real-time feedback on your brushing, and six different modes for a customized clean. After comparing it to my manual toothbrush, I have to say, I definitely noticed a difference.

So there you have it: The reviewer “definitely noticed a difference” between the $99 Oral-B 7000 and his $1 manual toothbrush. Sold! But, wait! There’s more…

The toothbrush comes with “Wireless SmartGuide” which, according to Oral-B, is...

A revolutionary new way to take care of your oral health, the 7000 SmartSeries with Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity not only removes more plaque but also eliminates doubt. Simply download the Oral-B app on your smartphone and connect with Bluetooth to get real-time feedback on your brushing habits.

A toothbrush with Bluetooth! A bloothbrush! Finally! After all these years!

Now, if you’re not as unapologetically wealthy as I am, you might think $99 is a bit rich for a toothbrush, Bluetooth or not. But that’s because you’re clearly not familiar with Reviews.com’s runner up recommendation - the Philips Sonicare DiamondClean. That device will set you back a full $188.99 without Bluetooth.

I hesitated for less than a second before clicking to buy… the Philips Sonicare. After all, the additional $90 is a pittance to pay for the privilege of not having my toothbrush constantly broadcasting my oral hygiene regimen to the world. In fact, as someone who recently mostly removed himself from the cloud, I’d gladly pay almost any amount of money to ensure that my household appliances remain firmly offline.

And that’s lucky because the Oral-B 7000 is a cavity-busting window on the future. It is already, apparently, cheaper to have an electric toothbrush with Bluetooth than without -- presumably because the increased demand and manufacturing efficiencies of scale more than balance out the tiny cost of a Bluetooth radio.

And so it will continue -- with smart products out-producing, out-selling and thus undercutting their analog rivals until the disconnected versions of everyday products become either luxuries or novelties, with sky-high prices to match (consider that the cheapest laptop on Amazon is currently $111 while a Brother electric typewriter is $675)

Once you start to look, the signs of this future - where those of us who value our privacy and occasional disconnectedness are forced to pay a steep price - are everywhere.

This past week, Blackberry (in the form of their new hardware partner, TCL) launched their long awaited Blackberry KeyONE -- aka “the most secure Android smartphone yet.” The device boasts the usual super-strong Blackberry encryption plus the DTEK security panel the company debuted on the PRIV which alerts users when, say, the NSA tries to activate your camera or microphone without your knowledge. According to people who understand more about this stuff than I do, the device is unrootable.

Already the device is the best selling unlocked phone on Amazon and Bestbuy and Canadian cell network Rogers says the KeyONE is its most pre-ordered Blackberry ever.

That’s a remarkable feat for a handset brand that many (myself included) had written off for dead. But it’s all the more remarkable given the phone is nigh on impossible to buy. It’s not available from Verizon or AT&T or T-Mobile. Blackberry Mobile’s website points would-be buyers to Bestbuy and Amazon where the device is available for between $550 and $688. Or at least it would be if those retailers weren’t completely sold out. There are (literally) a half dozen of the things available on eBay, with prices averaging around $800 but reaching over $1000 in several cases.

In a world where the NSA is vacuuming up your data from one end and Google, Apple et al are guzzling it from the other  it seems that a phone which, by all accounts, is mostly unhackable has become this season’s hottest, most price inelastic accessory.

Trying to hold back the tide of ultra-connectivity is a fool’s errand. Soon our cars will be self-driving, and always connected to a (terrifyingly hackable) central brain. Soon that Bluetooth connected toothbrush will seem almost quaint alongside IoT-enabled dental floss and cloud-connected cotton buds. And all of these innovations will be welcomed -- then demanded -- by consumers, who we know prize convenience over privacy.

And yet. If the success of the new Blackberry is any indication, we’re seeing the creation, in tandem, of a new market for luxury goods. Where the luxury in question is unconnectedness, or at least the ability to decide when one is connected and to whom.

We’ve seen something like this this before, of course, with services offering an ad-free experience, for a price. Amazon’s ad-free Kindle ($20 more than the ad-filled version) springs to mind, as do countless websites that offer a premium, paid version without commercial interruption. I’ve also been interested to watch the rise (and resurgence) of interest in paid communities vs free social networks: Online spaces where users are able to reassert themselves as the customer not the product. If I were a betting man, I’d bet big on paid communities around specific, valuable audiences -- the anti-Twitters and Facebooks in other words.  I’m also bullish on paid-for email services like Protonmail and more expensive, but more secure, alternatives to services like Dropbox and (please God) Google Docs.

But really what I’m describing here is something more physical - and thus more expensive:  Luxury cars boasting old-school, unhackable technology (a key! No self-driving brain!); wifi routers which don’t automatically double as public hotspots, internet service providers that don’t sell your data to anyone  and perhaps even include a built-in VPN. All for just a few (thousand) dollars more than the standard always-connected, always-watching versions.

Case in point: A billboard for Sonic just appeared in my neighborhood. It seems the Santa Rosa based  ISP is rolling out its 1GB  fiber service across the Mission, Noe Valley, The Castro, Dolores Heights, Glen Park, Potrero Hill, and Sunnyside. I guess 1GB is terribly exciting if you like to binge watch five shows at once -- but the real selling point of Sonic is something else. Unlike AT&T, Comcast et al, who seem ever more determined to grab and share user data, especially with new laws on their side, Sonic is one of the few ISPs that not only supports user privacy but actually lobbied for it.

From the company’s privacy page:

  • Sonic never sells our member information or usage data, nor do we voluntarily provide government or law enforcement with access to any data about users for surveillance purposes.
  • Sonic minimizes data retention, keeping data from 0 – 14 days for dynamic IP addresses and other logs and commits to EFF’s privacy-friendly Do Not Track policy. We believe that user data should not be retained longer than necessary, and that users deserve to have a clear understanding of personal data held by service providers.
  • Sonic is also against the re-authorization of Section 702 (the law behind the PRISM and Upstream programs). Governments and other entities should not collect huge quantities of phone, email or other internet usage data directly from the physical infrastructure of any communications provider.

In the age of Donald Trump, there’s pretty much no limit to how much I’d pay for a service like that, Gigabit speed or no. Which only makes it more puzzling that Sonic says its Gigabit service will be $40 a month, or $20 cheaper than Comcast’s high speed offering in San Francisco -- which is plain madness. If I’ll pay $200 for a disconnected toothbrush, then I’d pay ten times that for an ISP whose business model isn’t dependent on monetizing my browser history.

And, again, that's lucky because soon - call it the Philips Sonicare future -  multi-billionaires like me will be the only ones who can afford to opt into the luxury of privacy.