I don’t spend much on physical stuff. It’s not that I’m a minimalist - I have just as much needless crap lying around as the next person. It’s simply that I care far more about experiences and time rather than physical possessions. I shop for clothing two or three times a year. I have one set of bedsheets. I got by without a bedframe for a year after moving into my apartment, and the one I finally found was being given away for free on Craigslist.
Electronics hold a special place in my heart though. From unpacking my first Playstation 2 at Christmas to my very first Toshiba laptop (only to learn what Vista was soon after). My first iMac. Tearing open the antistatic packaging on a motherboard and graphics card to assemble a computer for the first time. Upgrading to my first SSD. Building my first RAID cluster for my media center and dedicated Minecraft server. I was one of the first 5,000 people to own an HTC Vive, for which I got rid of my bed and slept on the floor for a year to make room for it. To this day the biggest impulse buy I’ve made was two overclockable 1440p monitors from South Korea (still using them to this day)! My parents’ garage still contains an unspeakable amount of computer gear I’m going to have to go through someday and get rid of. It never gets old: that feeling opening up the packaging and spending the next few hours enthralled with the shininess of some new gizmo. I know happy chemicals when I feel them and unpacking a new gadget dumps them as well as anything else.
But growing older has meant experiencing that feeling less frequently. As of writing this my refurbished MacBook Pro is pushing 5 years of daily use. The most exciting tech purchases I’d made in the past three years were both grayscale e-ink devices. I’ve been running an iPhone 7 Plus since early 2017 - just about 3 years. And I was planning to try to squeeze another year of life out of it when it all simply became too much: a faulty charging port, a battery that lasted half a day, constant crashes, and a forgotten Screen Time passcode (this was effectively self-inflicted psychological torture; you’ve been warned). And so I decided to take the plunge and acquire a shiny new iPhone 11 Pro: my most expensive tech purchase in five years.
Walking out of the Apple store, instead of the electric anticipation I remember feeling so often as a kid I felt a completely different set of emotions. First and foremost I was upset about being separated of over a thousand dollars in a single transaction. But who wouldn’t be, right? Nobody likes money leaving their bank account, especially in such a quantity. It didn’t make it hurt any less that the company I gave this money to, at the time of writing, is valued at $1,390,000,000,000. Just a quick reminder: A million seconds is 12 days. A billion, 31 years. And a trillion comes in at 31,688 years. Read those sentences again if you need to, and try to remember them the next time someone compares a millionaire with a billionaire.
There was the sad realization that as dazzled as I am today with the speed, thinness, and features of this phone, in just a few short years I’ll be cursing it as loudly as the one I replaced. Call me jaded but I’ve seen that cycle happen a few too many times - the honeymoon phase always ends. I’m not claiming another Batterygate here; I understand battery lifecycle degradation but I really do wish these phones were built with a longer timescale in mind. I don’t need a thinner phone - give me more reliability and a longer battery life and I’ll be happy.
It’s also a stark reminder of just how easy it is to get caught up chasing after the unreachable and trying to get there faster with money: as if getting that fancy watch, faster car, or bigger house is going to make a shred of difference to our baseline happiness state. We’re primates; and it’s a shiny thing; shiny thing, meet primate. Living in New York City is weird.
I felt guilt at the fact the person who assembled this phone would need to work over 41 (forty-one) 8-hour days at $3.15/hour to make enough to buy one, as if they don’t have bigger problems facing them. Sadness, at the sheer number of people on this planet who won’t even get to experience unpacking a new phone because they’re too worried about civil war, climate change, pollution or just getting enough clean water to make it tomorrow.
But most of all, I’m utterly appalled at the fact that it’s 2020 and this is the best a company with a quarter trillion dollars in cash on hand could come up with: another iteration on the oh-so-successful skinner box. Mark my words: in ten years we’re going to look back at our social media today the way we do smoking in planes in the 80’s. These devices have unimaginable potential at helping us self-regulate our habits and emotions; helping us stay focused on our goals and facilitating healthy reflection. At maybe making us feel a little more connected to those we share our world with. Yet their most profitable uses involve analyzing our every move in hopes of selling us yet another thing we don’t need.
I’m still an optimist at heart, and I think the future holds amazing potential. But things are going to have to change; from banning planned obsolescence to establishing standards around how many notifications a human being is allowed to receive within a 12-hour period. And most of all I hope organizations will be willing to take risks again, at solving bigger problems than the size of their shareholders’ returns. Coming up with solutions the great-grandchildren of the founders might one day look back at in awe. Here’s to that more hopeful future.
P.S. to add insult to injury, I set it up as a new phone and it still pulled my Screen Time settings from my iCloud account. Send help.