If you want to get deep—and I mean really, really deep—into the technological buying patterns of the American consumer, one of the best places to start is the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Not only has the agency tracked purchasing habits since the Consumer Price Index began in 1913, but its statisticians pay attention to a remarkable array of details. Like which refrigerator color people like best, and how preferences change over time. (White, almond, and cream-colored fridges may be the most common, but black, stainless steel, and wood are all perceived as better quality, according to government data.)
The Consumer Price Index is primarily a way for federal officials to track inflation, but the closer you look at this kind of data over time, the more you’ll notice nuanced—and not-so-nuanced—changes in the American consumer’s relationship with technology. The index doesn’t just show how spending on the same goods changes over time (although that can be revealing, too); it also tells us how technology has evolved in the United States. Consider, for example, how the “motion pictures” of the 1940s were reclassified as “movies” by the 1950s, then specified in the 1960s to include “indoor movies”—a detail that calls to mind the popularity of drive-in theaters at the time. Or how, in 1977, CB radios and microwave ovens were added to the official basket of goods. Or how phonographs vanished from the index in the 1950s, around the same time television appeared. (And how when the television appeared, it was weighted three times as heavily as radio, meaning it was seen as more important, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)