THE BLOG
06/09/2013 08:22 BST | Updated 05/11/2013 05:12 GMT

This is the Age of 'Smart'

We watch them, drive them, make phone calls on them and even live in them. Everything today, it seems, is smart. TVs, cars, phones and cities all carry the prefix to display their clever credentials. And next week, with the launch of the new iPhone 5S, another product will be added to the long list of smart.

Originally used as shorthand to describe something's internet capabilities, the word smart is now so commonly used - and misused - that it has become a zeitgeist for our age.

Every era has its word. Before smart, products were interactive, or i, if you wanted to exude minimalist cool. The beginning of the internet age was defined by digital and before that, e.

In the 1990s we were worried about the Planet. More importantly, we wanted to tell people that we were worried about the Planet by what we purchased. Fridges, clothes, radios, even petrol was therefore prefixed with eco or green.

There is a precise moment when these words begin to define an era. It is the point where their use becomes meaningless.

Take turbo, the prefix of the 1980s. It was first popularised by carmaker Saab which introduced an engine with a fan to make it go faster. Soon most cars carried a turbo badge on their tailgates or on stick-on graphics, even if they didn't have one. Turbo meant go-getting, thrusting and cool. It was of its time and absolutely nothing to do with a little whirring fan.

Turbo spread beyond cars. Cookers, vacuum cleaners, disposable razors were all emblazoned with the word turbo, usually italicised to emphasise speed. By this time the word had become so corrupted - where the image it portrayed transcended its meaning - that it defined the era.

Forward wind three decades and the same is happening to smart. It has a proper meaning. At Ofcom, where I work, smart is used in a precise way. Our exhaustive 400-page report on the state of the UK communications sector contains 380 references to smart, mainly to define TVs and mobile phones (including the iPhone). These are connected devices that do clever things for their owners.

But what about the plethora of other products that now carry the smart prefix? Toasters. Face creams. Babies' potties. Are these really smart? These are just three examples of products on sale right now at John Lewis with the smart label. The "Smart Potty" is, apparently, "the perfect combination of function and convenience. It's small, yet stable and easy to empty and clean".

The word smart is starting to become meaningless, its use is stolen by marketeers to sell an image of an age. We have entered the era of smart.