Upgrade Cycles

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 December 1997

We’re supposed to be in favor of innovation. It’s a form of evolution. Then why is every new version of software or upgrade of processor feeling like such a drag?

By presenting technology as a mere extension of our natural development towards a more networked and efficiently communicating cultural organism, I have always been able to rationalize my way out of the sometimes uncomfortable imperative to change with the times.

Although I was born too late to work with computers before I graduated college, I kept my chin up and struggled to be an early adopter as an adult. While many people were still battling with their VCR’s, I was proud of my slow but steady indoctrination into the point-and-click reality of the Macintosh, and then the slightly more cumbersome Internet, and then the multimedia networked nightmare we call Windows 95.

Still, like everyone else who bought into the vision of technologically enhanced future, I have tried to keep up with new standards as they are developed, making sure my own ability to participate in the growing digital infrastructure is never impeded by a lack of willingness to learn a few new tricks.

Sometimes, however, it feels like I’m being asked to learn more than I need to. Tackling the communications and contacts program, Microsoft’s Outlook 97 that was shipped along with Windows 95 on my new computer proved less than rewarding. To make the damn thing work, I spent more time downloading upgrades and patches than I could ever hope to earn back through increased efficiency or compatibility. And no sooner do I download a version of the RealAudio Player than am I informed I’ll need an upgrade to listen to my favorite news broadcast online.

I don’t know how many times I’ve sworn myself that if I just get one more program and learn one more set of commands, I won’t ever have to do it again. But the various programs never talk to one another quite right, and a new integrated solution comes along promising to get everything working together just right. It never does.

The frustrations that result are more than simple growing pains, and apparently I’m not alone.

The U.S. Justice Department’s attack on Microsoft for packaging its Explorer browser along with the Windows operating system continues to draw cheers from all corners. Even the free-market capitalist libertarians find themselves chortling with glee as they scan the headlines quoting Janet Reno’s latest condemnation of Bill Gates’ aggressive marketing practices.

These anti-trust allegations against Microsoft are themselves only specious at best. While the company’s somewhat coercive industry practices and standards-setting-through-absorption might be worthy of investigation, the extension of an operating system to include the Internet is a logical step. The functioning of a computer is no longer limited to the confines of its own hard drive, and operating systems were bound to reflect this networked reality.

The underlying frustration with Microsoft and its seemingly endless upgrade cycles has more to do with our well-founded resistance to learn and pay for innovations that we haven’t asked for, and don’t really need. Almost everything I value in my current computer was available on my trusty old Macintosh SE: word processing, access to text and email over the Internet, and desktop publishing. Most of us could get by quite nicely with the first computer and operating system we ever used.

In fact, though we have barely begun to tap the power of the computers we already own, countless research dollars are being spent devising bigger and better systems and programs. It is not human passion for innovation that is driving this effort, or even the force of technology itself, but economics.

Capitalist economies are dependent on an expansion of the Gross National Product in order to thrive. There is no such thing as enough. Since most businesses (and nations) are funded with credit, economies and corporations must grow just to maintain their ground. For stock prices to rise, companies must earn more money each year, and this rate of growth must accelerate. Simply stated, we must produce and consume more stuff every quarter to keep the economic engine churning.

Keeping stores open seven days a week and encouraging two-wage-earners per family, while serving many cultural functions, also served to increase the amount of overall production and consumption, and led to a corresponding revival of the economies where these changes occurred. The technology industry is ideally poised to provide us with a similar burst of economic activity. But at what cost?

Technology increases the surface area of possible commodified exchange. We can buy more things more quickly online than we can at a shopping center. We can also supply and produce many goods more efficiently. It seems to me, however, that the main thing we are designing, building, buying, and discussing on these machines is more of the machines themselves.

The leisure time we spend online can be extremely enriching, but it can also feel like work. Downloading and installing a new upgrade is work. Learning to use a new browser or email program requires effort. But our willingness to do so is what keeps the software companies alive.

As a technology journalist, I find myself needing to stay up-to-date as part of my job. To write an article about the latest upgrades, I need to earn enough money to buy and use them. Sometimes I wonder if I’m writing technology pieces merely to pay for the technology I’ll be writing about in my next piece.

I’m no luddite, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only advocate of technology who feels he is often more in service to his machines than they are to him.

My next door neighbor never learned to program his VCR. To him, it was an innovation that tested his willingness to adapt to change, and lost. When those of us keeping the computer revolution in business decide that we just don’t feel like adapting to any more “improvements,” a little anti-trust suit will be least of Bill Gates’ worries.