Of the numerous addictive behaviors directly linked to computer use—gaming, health and fitness tracking, stock watching/picking, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, texting—if we could just step back for a moment, there’s much to learn from our digital repetitive-motion disorders.
The lubricant that once kept the industrial universe in almost perpetual motion was something called planned obsolescence. The special heat-treated steel used in Henry Ford’s first Model T four-cylinder engines was a light but unfortunately not self-regenerating alloy. Friction and other basic laws of physics, along with manufacturing decisions based on lower costs, required that we learn to live with the fact that our stuff wears out.
But the circuits and plastic that made up your once-impressive Palm Pilot PDA probably didn’t wear out before you decided to retire it permanently. And it isn’t just your gray-screen personal digital assistant that you have since put on a shelf. The once-ubiquitous iPod music player, the Polaroid camera, and the pocket calculator all have or are disappearing in the backwash of a wave of smartphones. And that’s because we couldn’t talk to our Palm Pilot or watch TV shows on it or do some banking or research the address of the senator from our district.
Planned obsolescence has been replaced by innovation in the world of gadgets. The force that drives gadget manufacturing now isn’t the usual exhausted mechanical parts but rather new ideas.
And there’s another catalyst that’s part of this inclination to want the next new thing. Buyer’s remorse is something that can begin to nag at you right after you realize that you shouldn’t have bought that particular item, whatever it was. In a way, it’s a species of disappointment that can work just like planned obsolescence, but only if it’s carefully cultivated by manufacturers. And how would they do that? Well, how about setting up a schedule of annual relaunches of your new device? Let’s say you bought your iPhone 6 in September last year knowing ahead of time that the next—and better—model would be launched in September of this year. And then it turns out the new one really is better, and it, the iPhone 7, doesn’t even cost more than what you paid for the 6. This is a kind of “eventual buyer’s remorse” within the very business plan for the product. You don’t have a choice except to buy the hardware with the shortened lifespan, and this impermanence has nothing to do with the durability of the hardware or software. They aren’t going to wear out in a year, but the manufacturer is counting on soon luring you away from the current, really excellent gadget to the next generation.
Want to gauge your own vulnerability to this eventual buyer’s remorse dance? One by-product of our gadget addiction is that we create personal museums of technology within our own homes, adding to the collection each time we take up a new dance partner. You only have to open a few drawers or reach for the top shelf of the closet and look at the devices you’ve put aside. How extensive is your own collection? And then the key question: Don’t most of those things still work?
CHANGE IS GOOD
The reason next-gen buyers remain forward looking is pretty obvious. I’ll offer an example retrieved from my own museum. The NEC MobilePro 900c is a handheld PC about five inches wide and 10 inches long. The screen is about 3" × 7.5". It runs a Windows CE version of Pocket Office. It was the top of the line in the series, selling for $929 in 2005. Here are some of its specifications listed next to the iPad Pro 9.7, the computer I now use as a portable PC. The NEC numbers are first, the iPad’s second:
Pale color touchscreen of 640 × 240 pixels vs. brilliant Retina screen of 2,048 × 1,536 pixels; 400MHz central processor vs. 2.26GHz; 64MB RAM vs. 128GB; on-board memory of 64MB vs. 2GB; weight of 1.83 lbs. vs. 0.96 lbs.; no cameras vs. front and rear-facing still and video; battery life not listed vs. 10 hours. The NEC Internet maximum transfer rate is a soporific 56KB per second. The iPad offers an astonishing display, mainframe speeds, and almost unlimited memory (when using the cloud). When I bought the iPad last year, it cost $121.64 less than the original purchase price of the NEC.