Are Smartphone Upgrades Worth the Hype?

Monday, February 17th, 2014 by contromal

I am currently in the throes of deciding whether or not to replace my iPhone. It is a 4S, which means two versions have already replaced it. It is two years old, which means my phone plan allows me to “upgrade” (and will charge me monthly, as if I already have upgraded even if I choose not to). And, almost too perfectly, my phone started glitching the moment it turned two. This situation enticed me to reflect on why my phone has suddenly become garbage.

In the introduction to Deep Time of the Media, Siegfried Zielinski writes that “Sterling’s project confronted burgeoning fantasies about the immortality of machines with the simple facticity of a continuously growing list of things that have become defunct. Machines can die” (2). According to phone company X’s plan-renewal timeline and my machine’s incessant glitching, my phone is dying. Now I know it is not exactly the same, but I have shoes that I have happily worn for ten years that cost a fraction of the price of new technology (in my case the iPhone) and, for once, I am questioning whether “innovative,” technological developments are worth the price companies are asking me to pay. If time is indeed money and money is time, how many hours of my life am I willing to sacrifice to “upgrade” to something that seems like marginal “improvement”? Compared with the most recent phone models, my phone is not bulky, it takes fantastic pictures, and it allows me comparable access to internet/phone/etc.

Zielinski writes that “The history of the media is not the product of a predictable and necessary advance from primitive to complex apparatus. The current state of the art does not necessarily represent the best possible state” (7). This quote contains two points relevant to my line of inquiry: first, technology does not necessarily move from simple to complex and, second, current does not necessarily mean best. Using Zielinski’s logic, could we not theorize that we have already encountered a “best” technological state? Maybe the pinnacle was a telephone in every house, the telegraph across continents, or cell phones before they were smart. An argument could easily be structured, which posits that “best” (for humanity, ecologically, economically, politically, socially, etc.) has already been accomplished and what we have now (or will have in the future) is actually a devolution from that “best” state, because I sincerely doubt that “best” could ever be universally defined and accepted.

So, as a consumer, why must I replace my phone at the accelerated pace set by corporations? I think there must be some elements of fear (of being left behind new technology, of being left out of communication, of not getting our money’s worth) and some addiction to the shiny and new. Zielinski states that “Nothing endures in the culture of technology; however, we do have the ability to influence how long ideas and concepts retain their radiance and luminescence” (2). I think the shiny things companies offer as innovative have lost their luster and are simply “normal” now (to groups with access). Jonathan Crary in 24/7 writes that “when such devices are introduced (and no doubt labeled as revolutionary), they will simply be facilitating the perpetuation of the same banal exercise of non-stop consumption, social isolation, and political powerlessness, rather than representing some historically significant turning point. And they too will occupy only a brief interval of currency before their inevitable replacement and transit to the global waste piles of techno-trash” (40). It seems only appropriate that capitalism has sped up this process of technological turn-over, while citing its historical significance at every available moment.

This post is growing far too long… but has anyone else noticed that marketing by Apple/Microsoft/Samsung/etc. seems very focused on that individual’s contribution and connection to personal historical significance? That is, the marketing seems focused less on the the individual and culture or community and more on the “me.”

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3 comments on “Are Smartphone Upgrades Worth the Hype?

  1. Your post got me thinking about how companies/corporations might capitalize on the power of the glitch (are *already* capitalizing on the glitch) even as our technologies become more and more reliable.

    I know it’s at the level of conspiracy theory crazy, but it seems to be that many technological devices seem to have a self-destruct timer built in. I don’t mean this in terms of the battery, as I’ve heard many good arguments about slumps in battery technology (as well as the fact that our devices energy demands have only gone up as well). But in terms of computers, phones, etcetera turning into absolute bricks in two to four years (however long before the new thing’s on the market), I’ve always had my suspicions. My significant other told me that back during college four PS2s in the house he lived in suddenly stopped working in the space of 2 months. Dell computers seem to have a max life of about 2-3 years. Hmmm.

    Of course, I don’t think it’s an actual self destruct timer in these devices, just crappy design with cheap materials. The xbox red ring of death would’ve been averted by a couple cents more part. But–rather than demand better quality–it seems we accept an older model that technological devices simply “glitch” at some point, and we’re totally cool with replacing them for shinier (though not necessarily better) new devices. Leaving corps to rake it in.

  2. lola192 says:

    A few of my friends used to constantly poke fun at another of our friends who clung to his old flip phone for as long as he could. They even nicknamed one of their dogs ‘Flip Phone’ as she was a little slow on the uptake. He eventually caved and bought a smartphone. Having jumped on the smart technology bandwagon, he is now susceptible to the very issues Renee points out, whereas he was relatively immune beforehand. Yes, there was a finite time awarded to his flip phone’s existence from the moment it was created. However, he had that flip phone for years and it was still working flawlessly when he decided to ‘upgrade’. I hesitate to assert that the same could be said about his new phone once it comes time to ‘trade up’ once again.

    P.S. My iPhone 4S is also a little over 2 years old and starting to glitch out like nobody’s business. Furthermore, the power button stopped working so I no longer have the option of restarting my device to temporarily rectify those glitches.

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