Tracking Britain’s changing technology habits

Five milestones since 1997

Every year the Office for National Statistics publishes details of what’s known as “the basket of goods” — a range of around 700 products that regularly appear, it believes, in typical British shopping baskets.

The basket of goods helps the ONS calculate the effect of inflation as felt by shoppers in the real world — when they’re browsing along the high street, getting the groceries at the supermarket or surfing online.

The ONS has published details of the basket of goods online every year since 1997 and it makes for a fascinating piece of social history. Because items get added to the basket when purchasing volumes reach significant levels, and get removed when the volumes drop, we can use it to trace the nation’s changing tastes — in effect the basket is a gauge of popularity and mainstream adoption.

At Harvard we were curious to see what the basket of goods told us about Britain’s changing technology habits too. So we looked at which tech products and services have appeared in the ONS’s notional basket over the past 18 years — and identified five key milestones that typify some of the broader trends.

1. The arrival of the internet

Year: 1997
In: Internet subscription, CD-ROMs
Out: n/a

The basket of goods has existed since 1947 but it was only in 1997 that the details started to be put online. That feels fitting: it was in 1997 that ISP subscriptions were added to the basket as the internet became a truly mainstream service. And certainly the overall trend of the basket of goods since 1997, as we’ll see, is the shift from analogue technologies to digital.

2. The mini-disc era

Year: 2001
In: Mini-disc player
Out: n/a

Over the 18 years for which there are details of the basket of goods, we see technologies come and go. What felt like revolutionary products at the time become, with the benefit of hindsight, merely intermediate steps to something better. Mini-disc players, for instance, were added to the basket in 2001 at a time when they were seen as the next big thing after CDs, but they were discarded shortly after in 2004. Similarly Freeview boxes were added in 2009 and discarded in 2013 as TV viewers moved to online and streaming services.

3. Passing the baton

Year: 2006
In: Personal MP3 player
Out: Personal CD player

Over the years, technologies come and go but on occasion you can almost trace the baton being passed between them. In 1998 the “portable radio cassette player” (ie the Walkman) was jettisoned from the basket and the CD player (ie the Discman) replaced them; in 2006 the CD player itself was removed in favour of MP3 players (ie the iPod); then in 2009 the MP3 player made way to the MP4 player. The king is dead, long live the king.

4. The digital and mobile revolution

Year: 2007
In: Mobile downloads (for example, ringtones); Satellite navigation system; Flat panel television (14–25"); Digital (DAB) radio; Pre-recorded DVD (non-film) from chart; Recordable DVD; Digital processing
Out: Portable colour television; VHS video recorder; Portable CD radio cassette; Car CD/radio auto-changer; Widescreen (CRT) television; Blank VHS cassette; Pre-recorded video; 35mm compact camera; Develop and print, mail order; Digital television installation fee

2007 saw more items added and removed from the basket than any other year — perhaps fitting for the year that saw the launch of the iPhone, the breakthrough tech device of the 21st century so far. It was 2007 when digital and mobile technologies really entered the basket of goods in force: ringtones, satnavs, flat-screen TVs and digital radios came in; VHS recorders, VHS tapes, film cameras and old-fashioned portable TVs went out.

5. Simplification and complexity

Year: 2015
In: Mobile phone accessory; Headphones; Games consoles online subscription services; Music streaming subscription services
Out: Satellite navigation device

Throughout the history of technology, there have been waves of greater simplicity and greater complexity — some products have been simplified hugely, even into obsolescence, while others have expanded and bifurcated as they became more popular. We can see those trends in the basket of goods too. Satnavs were added to the basket in 2007 but were removed in 2015 as their capabilities got swallowed up within smartphones, and as cars got satellite systems built in as standard. In contrast, flat-screen TVs got expanded from two size categories in 2006 to three in 2011 as consumers bought more of them and ranges increased.

Beyond those five milestones, though, there’s still plenty of fascinating material within the basket of goods. Just listing the products that come and go tells a story about how Britain’s technology habits have changed over the years: in come CD-ROMs, digital cameras, music downloads and ebooks; out go microwaves, video rentals and DVD players.

But the most telling fact of all is that, since 1997, far more technology products have been added to the basket of goods than have been removed (56 versus 32). Unquestionably, Britain has become a more tech-obsessed nation in the last 20 years.

Here’s the full table of every tech-related “in” and “out” from the basket of goods since 1997:

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