Don't be upgraded

'Creative destruction' isn't limited to throwing out last year's iPhone. Technology upgrades can distract us from denigrating human capabilities.

By Nathan Cheever

Technology offers an interesting set of verbs almost daily: “Upgrade”, “Sign in”, “Create Account”, “Buy”, “Activate”, and “Download” to name a few off the top of my head. There is always another version. Always more features, fixes and stuff on the digital horizon. We’re supposed to be excited, as with the release of a new OS by “New experiences. True Connections”. Sounds fascinating. And if such upgrades aren’t imposed upon us, as sometimes they are, we’re invited to be excited… now and always.

While we anticipate the next cycle, with it’s advertising of effortless convenience, one might wonder if it’s not the technology, but you, the consumer, who is being upgraded. You were just finally figuring out how to use that fifth camera when the next version came out and now it’s time to upgrade! Perhaps that’s the biggest irony of the fast release cycle: while the version is new, the hype is old.

Constantly chasing the next version belies our indoctrinated belief that newer is better. That an increase in a version number is a genuine increase in value. Each download imports the philosophy that what can be done with software should be done unquestioningly.

And despite the legitimate benefits gained and new ones promised with every announcement, have we ever wondered what we’ve lost?

“Creative destruction” isn’t just about last year’s iPhones getting thrown out. It’s valid for our denigrating competencies. Conversing without distraction. Navigating across town. Being alone with just our thoughts. Knowing when enough is enough. Perhaps most troubling and basic of all, have we forgot what in life is worth having time-saving technology for?

Technology, like money, should help you get onto the “stuff” that you really value, not be the thing you really value. Convenience and ease, as an end in themselves, only creates more discomfort. Life is always going to be difficult.

The party of hollow hyperbole and pointless upgrades is flat.

We must get weird, which is to say, act more human. We’ve gotta have the conversation about what we want to use technology for. “How can my phone help me get at the good stuff?” That’s a fun thought! When we learn what sustained people for millennia – those good, true, and beautiful things that have imbue meaning and purpose in people’s lives for centuries – we can rightly judge the appropriateness of cell-phone technology as means towards that end.

I’m no luddite. I have an iPhone (7) but I find myself increasingly wanting the appropriate technologies for the job, even if friction goes up. (And what are we in such a hurry for anyways!)

I’d rather have a well-worn map of my city so I can find my way around.
I’d rather have an analog note-taking system than a digital one.
I’d rather spend a few minutes writing an honest email than clicking whatever the auto-complete recommends.
I’d rather write letters to my friends and family rather than an email.

We should remember that newer does not necessarily mean better1. What is novel may not be valuable. If you’re not testing that assumption, you might be operating on programming that is unhelpful to your health, dreams, and values. Humans can challenge ideas but technology does not. It just follows programming. To the extent we blindly follow programming, we are indistinguishable from the product. An increase in version number might mean a decrease in the barbarian inside you.

[UPDATE: Not long after writing this piece, I decided to commit to trying a year without the smartphone. As of now it’s been more than one year and very happy with my choice. I’ll have to write more about the change in another piece. So I might just be a luddite after all.]

  1. An example of ageism? ↩︎