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When Gadgets Get The Upper Hand

TWO of the most alluring - and deceptive - adjectives in the English language may be "time-saving" and "convenient." On the premise that "time is money," busy consumers can justify almost any purchase, however expensive.

But what happens when time-saving inventions turn into time-wasting, money-consuming devices? Consider one real-life example: It is dinner time on a steamy July evening - a perfect occasion for cooking outdoors. When a suburbanite turns on the gas grill, one side refuses to light. After trying again with no success, he improvises by cooking on half the grill.

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Later, when he describes the problem at a hardware store, the salesman smiles knowingly. Ah yes, he explains, spiders in the venturi tubes. He sells the customer a venturi brush ($5.99), and the man heads home to clean the blocked passages. Time spent: one hour.

No big deal, except that this is the second time in recent weeks that the grill has thrown a tantrum, delaying dinner. Last month when it failed to light, a quick check revealed that the propane tank was empty, even though the gauge registered one-quarter full. Back to the kitchen stove. The next day, when the owner went out to buy propane ($12), who could blame him for also shelling out $13 for a new fuel gauge? Time spent: another hour.

It is enough to make an outdoor chef think fondly of simpler times when the family grilled on a small hibachi. It cost $7.99 and was the ultimate in low-tech, no-maintenance simplicity: unbreakable, portable, and easy to store.

In time, the couple replaced the hibachi with a shiny charcoal grill. Later they upgraded again, buying a gas grill because it offered the time-saving convenience of instant heat.

Like the "bracket creep" that occurs when a salary increase bumps a wage-earner into a higher tax bracket and siphons off a greater share of the extra income, what could be called "technology creep" threatens to erode some of the progress technology brings. Saving time becomes a partly illusory gain as consumers shop for, maintain, repair, and store their increasingly high-tech gadgets.

The first law of marketing is: Invent a new or better product and create a perceived need for it.

The second law, equally important, is: For every major product, manufacture an endless line of accessories, attachments, and "peripherals" to go with it.

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For barbecue grills, these include ignitors ($9.99), hoses and adapters ($19.99), vinyl grill covers ($19.99), grill brushes and scrapers ($3.99), hood holders ($5.99), and long-handled grill cutlery ($39.99). Serious cooks who want more flavor and "authentic smokiness" can also buy a bag of real charcoal ($10) to pile on top of the fake coals.

Gas grills are hardly the only culprits, of course. Few inventions have spawned more spin-off industries than the computer, with its endless need for software, filing systems, storage systems, furniture, and maintenance. Even accessories beget accessories. One tiny "system sweeper" vacuum for computers and printers ($29.95) requires its own replacement filters ($5.95).

Murphy's Law could be updated to read: Inventions and "add-ons" expand to fill the space available in stores and the plastic available in shoppers' wallets. No wonder credit counselors are warning that a national obsession with consumer products is causing Americans to overextend their credit cards to dangerous levels of debt.

"Simplify! Simplify!" has become the advice for the 1990s, a reaction against the excesses of the '80s. Yet that goal seems progressively harder to achieve in the midst of so many tempting technological advances.

Nobody wants to go back to rubbing two sticks together. Bells and whistles and gadgets offer definite advantages. Still, some summer evenings, as the owners of the gas grill stare at their state-of-the-art flames and wonder what it will take to fix the half of the surface that still refuses to ignite, they can't help imagining a golden age halfway between no-tech and high-tech. They recall the dependable little hibachi that needed only briquettes, lighter fluid, and a single match - not a venturi brush i n sight - and they think, "Now that was a time-saving invention."

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