Actor and banjo player Steve Martin quipped during a recent concert that his new electronic tuner was an upgrade from the old tuners. ‘There is less radiation on stage and I can check email,’ Martin said. The audience roared with knowing laughter. Given many in the audience were checking emails on their smartphones, the joke was most apropos.
We live in the age of upgrades. We want our gadgets to do things that we previously did not expect them to do. We want a little red light to appear on our wristwatch when our clothes have finished drying. We want to read the New York Times hands-free on our customised reading glasses.
Oh, and we always want to check email. That is the litmus test of any gadget. Can you check email on that thermometer?
The smartphone, which is the quintessential gadget, is not a device to make phone calls. That is its most unremarkable function. Instead, it is a device to play music and games, screen movies, upload and share pictures, download coupons, buy tickets, store airline boarding passes, send and receive text messages and emails, and use social media. It requires certain kinds of displays (a display for your ear?), touchscreens, and curved edges.
Such a product will not always do all things well for all users. Can you play your favorite music through your preferred streaming service on your smartphone, desktop, iPod, and iPad simultaneously? If a phone does what it is made to do – make a phone call – is that not enough?
Once upon a time, perhaps as far back as the mid 1980s, a computer or a phone was a carefully thought out, big ticket item to purchase for families, like a car, a refrigerator, a kitchen range, or a washer and a dryer. We still expect our cars to run for more than six months. We would be upset if our refrigerators, washers and dryers did not work beyond six months.
But it is not so clear-cut with personal computers and phones. We tolerate half-baked products from these manufacturers, because psychologically we have bought into a compromise called upgrades.
Once upon a time, an ‘upgrade’ literally meant an upward gradient. Metaphorically, it meant the bettering of a situation. You can still hear the old metaphorical meaning of upgrade in Beyoncé’s song ‘Upgrade You’. Hanging out with Beyonce will upgrade your social context: Rolls Royce cars, Audemars Piguet watches, Hermès briefcases, Cartier clips, VVS cuff links, six-star penthouse suites, silk-lined blazers and so on.
Now ‘upgrade’ alludes to a new psychic culture of consumerism in which we do not expect our gadgets to work completely when we buy them. We expect it to be under-developed. We accept that everything is a version and everything will have bugs. We have a high tolerance for shoddy workmanship.
Beyoncé’s song, perhaps unintentionally, reflects one of the critical reasons why consumers believe in upgrades. Conditioning oneself to the constant volley of upgrades depends on the lineage of the product. Dime stores are not selling upgrades. The myth of bad products getting better through upgrades is successful only because it is tied to specific brand names hyped up through marketing.
Between the bad product and its upgrade, often euphemistically called the ‘next-generation’ gizmo, manufacturers try to keep our faith in their bad product going by releasing patches and updates. Computers and smartphones ask you if you want to update your software daily, weekly, and automatically. If you notice the colorful beach ball of death on your computer screen spinning for nearly fifteen minutes, and nothing working the way it is supposed to, the new psychic adjustment to bad products tells us to check whether or not we downloaded all the updates and patches and restarted the gadget so they could take effect. The makers of bad consumer electronics have conditioned us really well.
Like extra credit for poorly written exams, we give manufacturers six to twelve months to unveil a new upgrade to their poorly conceived product. Media and consumers alike eagerly await the massively orchestrated and choreographed media events in which the release of iteration 6, 7, or 8 of a smartphone, tablet, or game console is unveiled. Every used and worked-on product gets to be a virgin for another day. Eager users comment histrionically on television and the internet on the new sleek look with the curved edges, sharper images, true colors, refresh rates, and blur-free videos. The upgrade industry talks about ‘innovation’; often, it is just correcting an embarrassing error.
The British economist E F Schumacher in Small is Beautiful (1973) expanded his studies in Buddhism to the meaning and function of work in human lives: work helps us discover and utilise our faculties in a pure state; work helps us overcome our constricting egos and connect with other human beings in a common task; and work brings forth products needed for a purifying, becoming existence.
In all three respects, work as realised through a culture of upgrades is moribund. Upgrades deify dead and non-functional things, and produce nothing that is truly needed for the original function of a product if it was made ethically to do what it was meant to do, like a tree producing its fruit. By short-circuiting natural laws of time and development and selling half-baked products with a built-in death wish purely for profit, the upgrade industry benefits from dead things.
Make a phone. Just a phone. Use it for its natural life. When it is dead, replace it with another phone, if necessary. Just a phone. Or walk away.
Is it possible to rethink work and life like that?
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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