Upgrading Our Way Out
What if your phone — the one you’re using now — was your last phone? Take a good look at it and imagine using it for the r e s t o f y o u r l i f e. Could it last that long? Could you?
The answer is no. On both counts. The company that made your phone is betting on your boredom kicking in pretty quickly, even before the phone itself gives out. And for those of you who would be perfectly happy buying one phone and using it for the foreseeable future, well, there’s just not a whole lot to foresee. They have made sure that your phone won’t last much longer than the successor they’re designing right now and hoping to sell you next Christmas. One way or another — whether your battery eventually degrades, given the 20% hit it takes every 500 charges, or the motherboard just can’t take another day of heat, or, let’s be honest, you shatter the screen on the bathroom floor — you’ll be buying a new one sometime over the next 3-5 years. Probably sooner.
Sounds cynical, no? That we’re caught up in a consumption cycle that treats pocket-size computers like to-go containers, in that they’re both designed to be held for a little while and then spend eternity buried in Fresh Kills or floating in the Pacific Trash Vortex or burning in Africa, is as reckless and wantonly wasteful as it sounds, but according to the billion-dollar industries that sit atop that cycle, it’s perfectly normal. Progress, even. If by progress, they mean keeping the hamster wheel spinning, or that there is a thing that came after another thing, or, screw it, that we’re progressing toward the day when everyone lives on islands of plastic, then yay, progress! But boy does that leave us all with a sickening number of notches on our consumption headboard. I’ve tried plenty of times to recall the full list of mobile phones that I’ve owned and am ashamed to admit that I cannot, nor can I tell you where the ones I do remember are today. It’s only fair to assume that they’re buried in Fresh Kills, or floating in the Pacific Trash Vortex, or burning in Africa. And you know what? That’s not OK.
The question is, who is to blame? Even if I was the most committed conservationist techie and had saved my first cellphone — I mean, just take a look at this beauty — I couldn’t call you on it. Same thing with the phone I replaced it with in 2004. Or the stalwart Nokia I used while living in Malaysia in 2005, which was actually an older phone than my previous one had been. Or any of the other phones I used before the one I’m using now. Each one designed to be my most intimately held device, to go where I go, to be with me for every waking moment of my life… for a little while. But not for long. Whose idea was this serial tech monogamy anyway? Where has the romance gone? Am I alone in wanting to find the right phone and settle down? And is it a betrayal that our matchmakers never intended us to stay together in the first place — that they planned the obsolescence of every single phone we’ve cradled late into the night? I couldn’t help but wonder. Capitalism, ya know?
But for every social engineer that sells something are millions of willing participants who buy. So we, too, must accept some culpability. Which begs a much more interesting question — beyond that of blame — of motive. Why? Why do we buy? And, more importantly, why do we desire and even anticipate desire. Millions of dollars are spent solely on the hype engine. Not the advertising, or the packaging, or anything directly tied to the products we buy, but just the chatter around what the next thing might be and when it might come. Our investment in the liminal speaks volumes, and yet, I still ask, why is the next thing so hard to resist?
In a recent interview with Marc Maron, Danny Boyle — director of the recent Steve Jobs biopic — said something interesting about Steve Jobs:
“Despite all the amazing products he’s made, which are perfect, he is himself poorly made.”
Swap “was” for “is,” and he’d have written quite the epitaph. In juxtaposing Jobs’s humanity — his failings and frailty — with the colossal impact he has had on our culture, Boyle isn’t dismissing his achievement, or even judging it. Instead, I think, he’s cutting to the core of our question of motive. Jobs, even as he approached death, continued to invest his time and withering energy into that very machine which fills our tabs and inboxes with anticipation and analysis, our faces with the cool glow of infinite information, and, yes, our landfills with glass, aluminum, and rare elements. Jobs, whose last words were so reportedly intrepid — “Wow, wow, wow” — leaving, as any person, a complicated legacy which, depending upon how you look at it, balances creativity with destruction, endurance with entropy.
That is the very tension of embodiment. It’s the taught, exposed nerve, the root of all we do with our bodies and suffer with our minds. We yearn for endurance; for commitment and continuity; for things that last; relationships, things, and, of course, our very selves. Yet, our bodies resist with every fiber of their being. Not just by craving novelty — as our cells shrink the interval between dopamine hits, first when we taste the new, then when we anticipate it, and then when we anticipate the anticipation — but by refusing to last themselves. By dying. Death is the only anticipation to which our bodies will not become addicted.
We live in an upgrade culture but our bodies don’t upgrade. You get one and that’s it. A mind aware of its body’s destiny is a mind in need of release and vulnerable to seduction. So long as we can imagine something — anything — that comes next, we have hope of perseverance.
Why do we consume with such destructive ferocity? Would it be too ironic to conclude that it is simply because we want to live?
Perhaps our serial techmonogamy — that endless cycle of upgrades that puts a new phone in our hands nearly every year and fills wishlists and Pinterest boards with countless desirables — is necessary to our being. Part of the zeitgeist. The 21st century expression of humanity’s travail; minds that can conceive of eternity, crying out from bodies that cannot.
On Screen: If you haven’t watched Wolf Hall yet, you are missing out. It is, quite possibly, the best television I have watched this year. Sumptuously shot — exquisitely made, really — extraordinarily written, and inspiringly acted. Please see it. It’s a miniseries: only a handful of episodes. Having learned the history of England — particularly the Henry-series-of-queens-and-Thomases story — I was enthralled by this modern look, especially as it recasts Thomas Cromwell as more of a cultural and religious trim tab and less of an English Machiavelli.
Recent Tabs: whatamidoingwithmylife? The end of internet advertising as we’ve known it is probably not the end of internet advertising, but a guy can dream. The state of machine intelligence. NPR’s 10 Favorite Electronic Albums of 2015. The Millions’s Year in Reading. The Phil Dick Circuit and the Future of Precognitive Technology. The Force Will Always Be With Us… which, honestly, is awful, right? For when you need some animals in your life. This is an incredible if-this-then-that for the real world. I can think of an immediate list of things I’d sync up using Reality Editor, only a few of which would actually be possible at this point. But still. This is the kind of thinking we need more of! I’ll probably write a whole newsletter on this soon. Thank you, Jennifer Daniel, for calling BS on the grandiosity of today’s design vernacular. The yule log video we deserve this season: Five hours of Darth Vader’s burning corpse. Finally, this week in burying the lede, there’s a company out there who has figured out how to fully recharge a smartphone battery in just five minutes. Yet, it has no phone manufacturing partnerships. Wut.