I’ve just returned from ten days in the Peoples Republic of China and I want to talk to you about green laser pointers. One thing that the city of Shanghai has in abundance is street vendors, and the one item that seemingly every roving vendor in the city was hawking this year was green laser pointers. Anywhere there might be tourists — on the Bund, outside the fashionable restaurants of the French Concession, at the front door of our own hotel — there was someone selling green laser pointers. Their spiel was always the same: you’d be counting your change as you emerged from a cab or you’d be trying to find your place on the mis-folded tourist map the concierge had given you or you’d be digging in your pocket for that last stick of Chinese coffee gum and a tiny pinprick of green light would appear dancing on the sidewalk in front of you. Then the single green light would become dozens of smaller lights as the seller demonstrated the green laser pointer’s only feature: it could change from being a pointer to being a . . . pointer that pointed with a lot of little pointers instead of one big pointer.
It got to be a little weird. I mean, even in a city as big as Shanghai, how much demand for green laser pointers can possibly exist on any given day? Certainly one or maybe two street vendors could have satisfied this demand and then some. The oddest part is that the vendors selling green laser pointers seemed to be selling only green laser pointers; it wasn’t as though they had a deep portfolio of products to fall back on if the customer’s green laser pointer needs had already been met. These people had bet the farm on green laser pointers. And why were they all green? Had none of the sellers opted to employ a differentiation strategy by selling, oh, I don’t know, red laser pointers?
It seems to me that laser pointers are one of those items where, if you should find yourself in a situation where a laser pointer is called for, one will be provided to you. Imagine this scenario: you get up in a packed conference room to deliver your big presentation. All your colleagues are there. Your boss is there. Your boss’s boss is there. You make your way to the front of the room with your notecards and your little bottle of water and you ask the tech guy for the laser pointer and he coughs and clears his throat and finally explains that each speaker is expected to bring his or her own.
Has that ever happened? Short of avowed cat torturers, who the hell has any need for a laser pointer? In fact, the demand for green laser pointers seems so narrow, so limited and specific that these vendors could have been hawking, I don’t know, kitchen faucets or Phillips screwdrivers or reams of office paper and probably done just as well. Was there not one iconoclast amongst all of these street vendors who could pick up the gauntlet and cry, “So all of you are going with the green laser pointers? Then I shall cast my lot with mechanical pencils?”
And what are we to make of the green laser pointer’s only feature, which is the ability to shift from projecting a single, steady light to projecting dozens of tiny lights that point in every direction? Must I be the one to point out that this feature defeats the laser pointer’s entire raison d’etre? It’s a pointer, man, it’s supposed to point. It’s not supposed to go buck-wild and start pointing every which way. Have some dignity, man. You’re a laser pointer. Start acting like it.