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.”