BONUS INDICATOR: The Calculator That Time Forgot Most products in this world are vulnerable to creative destruction: as new products are developed, they make old ones obsolete. But there are some exceptions — products that persist, resisting change while economic evolution continues without them. For instance: the graphing calculator. (This episode is from our other podcast, The Indicator from Planet Money. Subscribe to it wherever you get your podcasts.)
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BONUS INDICATOR: The Calculator That Time Forgot

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BONUS INDICATOR: The Calculator That Time Forgot

ALEX GOLDMARK, HOST:

Hi. It's Alex Goldmark here. This is a bonus episode because we're celebrating a special occasion. Our other podcast, The Indicator From Planet Money, turned 1 year old this month. It is daily. It's short. And we're proud of it. So we have picked out one of our favorite episodes from The Indicator's first year to play for you here. This one ran back in March.

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STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: It is standardized testing season (laughter).

CARDIFF GARCIA, BYLINE: Woo-hoo. Good luck, kids.

VANEK SMITH: I know. It's a very fraught time of year. And we thought this would be the perfect time to explore this really interesting, little economic story about creative destruction.

GARCIA: Creative destruction. That is the idea that the economy is always evolving, that there are new products that are constantly being invented, and those inventions make the old products obsolete.

VANEK SMITH: And this force is usually pretty inescapable. The movie reel becomes the videocassette becomes the DVD becomes online streaming. Things are always getting more convenient, faster, easier, cheaper. But there are little pockets of the economy where the laws of creative destruction are suspended like little islands of old-schoolness (ph), places where being old and outdated is a competitive advantage. This is THE INDICATOR. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And, Cardiff, today's indicator is 1994. Take yourself back. Bill Clinton was president. A stamp cost 29 cents. And the SATs decided to allow students to use graphing calculators on standardized tests.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: So, Cardiff, I don't know what your living room looked like when you were a kid growing up. But if we took a time machine back to my childhood home, the technology would seem pretty amazing right now. I had in my room, of course, a boombox. It was pink.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It took a lot of D batteries. We had a VHS player. We had a landline telephone with an answer machine that played these little tapes. We had a family computer. It was enormous, and it was beige, and it weighed, like, a million pounds. And it was connected to a dot matrix printer.

GARCIA: I remember those days.

VANEK SMITH: And none of that technology is around today. And the reason it is not around - creative destruction.

MARK PERRY: A phrase that an economist named Joseph Schumpeter came up with.

VANEK SMITH: Mark Perry is an economist at the American Enterprise Institute. He writes a blog called Carpe Diem. And he says creative destruction can be really difficult and destructive force in an economy. But it's also a really positive force in an economy.

PERRY: Creative destruction is this continual and powerful and very positive force in a market economy that just reflects the dynamism and changes in technology in all different types of fields. And so, sometimes, in my - on my blog, I call it Hurricane Joseph. It's just these gales of...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

PERRY: ...Creative destruction that are kind of disrupting markets.

VANEK SMITH: Hurricane Joseph (laughter).

GARCIA: Oh, economists, never change.

VANEK SMITH: And creative destruction is why none of the technology from my childhood exists today except - Cardiff, it's all coming back around - the graphing calculator.

GARCIA: What?

VANEK SMITH: I know. Do you - I don't know. Do you remember your graphing calculator? They were these big calculators. They were, like, the size of a Hershey bar...

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...And, like, four Hershey bars thick.

GARCIA: They were like the original iPads but without being able to do anything except give you a nice cosine graph or whatever.

VANEK SMITH: Right. They could do calculus and absolutely nothing else. But they had a big screen, and you could type equations into it. And it would graph them...

GARCIA: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...On an x- or y-axis. I remember mine well. We spent a lot of time together, me and my graphing calculator. And I looked on Amazon the other day. And TI is still making these calculators, and so is Casio. And, Cardiff, they look exactly the same.

GARCIA: Really?

VANEK SMITH: Let me show you this. You are not...

GARCIA: And they still work?

VANEK SMITH: ...Even going to believe it. No, these are new. I mean, hopefully, they work.

GARCIA: It appears to be every bit as complicated and, like, as dense with tiny buttons as I remember it.

PETER BALYTA: So, yes, you're not wrong in thinking it kind of has the same look and feel.

VANEK SMITH: Peter Balyta is the president of education technology at Texas Instruments.

BALYTA: We could easily add features to our calculators like a touchscreen, Wi-Fi or a camera. But we don't.

GARCIA: I mean, there are blenders that can connect to the Internet now.

VANEK SMITH: My blender connects to the Internet.

GARCIA: Well done.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you.

GARCIA: My mind is still quite analog, I'm afraid.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: But the idea that a piece of modern technology would not connect to the Internet is almost unthinkable these days. And yet that fact is what makes these calculators special. In fact, if the graphing calculator were connected to the Internet, it would be less valuable. There wouldn't even be a reason for its existence.

BALYTA: Because it could compromise the test security and really detract from what the calculators are designed to do.

GARCIA: The graphing calculator did once represent cutting-edge technology. And it took standardized test designers years before they would allow graphing calculators to be used on their tests. These test makers worried that the calculators would give students an unfair advantage. Now it's exactly the opposite. Graphing calculators are pretty much the only technology that standardized test makers will allow because unlike smartphones or laptops, the graphing calculator is not connected to the Internet.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. Its value lies in the fact that technology skipped over it. And speaking of value, people pay a lot for this anachronistic technology. Most graphing calculators cost around a hundred dollars, which is about what I paid when I got mine. But back then, the technology was really cutting-edge, and now you can buy devices that will do far more for far less money. And I asked Peter at TI about this.

It does seem like the price hasn't gone down that much. It seems like the price, you know, considering the technology involved, maybe should've gone down more.

BALYTA: You know, I will say that when someone's buying a graphing calculator, they're not just buying a graphing calculator. They're buying, really, a solution for a classroom.

GARCIA: Yeah. Plus, if you think about it, high school calculus and physics students are a captive market. Texas Instruments sells around 6 million graphing calculators a year. Mark says Hurricane Joseph is usually inescapable. But these are like islands of isolated peoples where creative destruction doesn't reach.

PERRY: They're really interesting products to just think about or appreciate, I guess, for their ability to stay frozen in time after many, many decades and over a generation of change that's disrupted everything else.

GARCIA: These calculators are giant and bulky, and students basically are forced to buy them for school. They also look like something from another era. And honestly, given the archaic technology they use, they're still pretty expensive. But Peter Balyta says a lot of people still get attached to them, a lot of students. He says he gets calls and letters from them all the time. And he's got a theory as to why some people seem to love their graphing calculators.

BALYTA: I think it's a tool, you know, that they're - that they have had with them by their side when studying, you know, what are not always the easiest classes - you know, math, science, you know, calculus. You know, those are long nights and require a lot of hard work. And always right by their side is their TI graphing calculator.

VANEK SMITH: Peter says he sees a lot of photos of students who are dressing up like graphing calculators for Halloween or using them in clubs and games. And he says there's, like, this big trend in using them in promposals (ph). That's a thing. By the way, the idea for this episode came from a listener, Thomas Halik (ph). Thank you, Thomas. And if you have a graphing calculator, please send us a photo of it - indicator@npr.org. We would love to see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GOLDMARK: That was an episode of PLANET MONEY'S other podcast, The Indicator. The Indicator comes out every weekday. It's short - 10 minutes or less. And it's kind of like your economics crash course for what's happening in the world right now. So please go and subscribe to The Indicator From Planet Money wherever you get your podcasts. Or ask your smart speaker to play The Indicator podcast. I'm Alex Goldmark, and thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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