Material Guy

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 17, 2006

THERE IS NO MORE purely American publication than SkyMall, the catalogue that lets people do what God intended them to do when flying 35,000 feet above the Earth -- shop.

The summer 2006 issue runs 196 ultra-thin pages, with tiny type, the better to cram in thousands of individual affluent-lifestyle objects that every sensible person should own, like a remote-control mechanical shark ($99.95) -- perfect for anyone hoping to scare the bejabbers out of a rubber duck.

Or you might purchase a pet stroller -- $119.95 -- that is ideal for transporting dogs and cats that do not have legs.

SkyMall understands that its readers are psychologically vulnerable. They're wedged into tiny seats and given nothing but a little bag of micro-pretzels, enough food to sustain a gerbil. They aren't even allowed to bring a bottle of water on board, and have had to throw away, at the security checkpoint, their favorite hair gel. (Before flying I apply enough hair gel to last for days or, if necessary, weeks. My hair will be so stiff I have to style it with a hammer.) And so these travelers have an urge to obtain something. Ordering from SkyMall not only supplies an endorphin boost but is an act of optimism, as it presumes the safe landing of the plane. The traveler thinks: I will survive this flight and own a new 1,000-CD multimedia storage tower!

People do a lot of soul-searching on airplane rides, and realize that the only thing they need to achieve true happiness is that remote-control device that will open and close the deck umbrella ($149).

You may notice a pattern in SkyMall: There are all these objects that service other objects. You'll find shoe racks, trouser racks, stemware racks, even a rack for your batteries, which are probably rattling around in a drawer somewhere at your house screaming,"Rack me!"

Someday they will figure out how to sell you an object that organizes, monitors, cleans or in some way maintains all the objects in your house that are devoted to caring for objects. Even money is a form of burdensome object, which is why you might want to buy a digital cash counter ($299).

Marxists long ago foretold the eventual exhaustion of capitalism, saying it would collapse when it ran out of things to sell to people. But the Marxists did not realize that there is no limit to manufactured desires and invented needs. You weren't that worried about your toothbrush until you saw that, for just $29.95, you could buy a germicidal travel case that will render it practically sterile. You were happy shaving in a regular mirror until you saw the Power Zoom Shower Mirror that lets you, at the touch of a button, zoom in and out with up to 5X magnification. The entire narrative of capitalism vs. communism can be explained by the $139.95 sonar watch that not only tells time but gives you an LCD display of any fish swimming within 75 feet of you.

For just $49.99 you can get the ThermoHAWK Infrared Thermometer, which allows you to precisely measure the surface temperature of any object the thermometer touches. Not that we were dying to know, but it's consistent with the rule governing new technology: Don't wait for the question before creating the answer. (What they really need to do is invent an Attractiveness Meter that upon contact with a person gives you a digital readout of the person's looks, on a scale of 1 to 10, down to the third decimal. So much more accurate than trying to make that judgment yourself while intoxicated or in a state of concupiscence.)

Here's something so handy it's hard to believe anyone has survived until now without it: The QuickLink-Pen Elite electronic note-taker, which lets you take notes just by running the pen over a piece of text ($149.95). For example, you wouldn't have to actually read this column. You could just sort of . . . wipe it.

Eventually, as our possessions become more intertwined with one another, and more objects are devoted to caring for other objects, the human consumer will be cut out of the loop. The electronic pen will have a relationship with our books and magazines that will not require our input. The remote control will open and close the deck umbrella at its own discretion. We'll still be around, of course, and still wedged into airplane seats.

But there won't be a pilot.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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