Upgrade Culture: We’re all Obsolescents

Nick Barham
Published in
6 min readJan 15, 2020

We don’t have to live at the speed of tech

Illustration: Calvary Fisher

They showed up in the first few days of the new decade, as conversations swirled around where we are heading and how to make it better. A challenge from Equinox to Upgrade my Fitness Regime, an invitation from Upgrade Labs to try a Vasper Cold Hiit or Joov red-light. The message was clear: now’s the time for self-improvement.

And whether it’s in the name, or just the intention, from drinking more water to avoiding toxic friends, the theme remains the same. January 2020 is all about the upgrade.

Like so many contemporary human descriptors, the language of upgrade came from tech. The idea was originally practical, and if not always better (Windows Vista, anyone?), then at least benign. But the newsworthiness of the upgrade corrupted the upgrade cycle: a desperate race for new features forced the spectacle of the upgrade to become more significant than the upgrade itself.

The velocity of upgrade culture is driven by that familiar villain: planned obsolescence.

“Obsolescence can be achieved through introducing a superior replacement model, or by intentionally designing a product to cease proper function within a specific window. In either case, consumers will theoretically favor next generational products over the old ones.”

Whether it’s intentional or the result of genuine improvement, the effect is the same. The products that we surround ourselves with are designed or destined for obsolescence, not longevity. When things were built to last, we were careful with them. When we know that something will soon be redundant, because another version is waiting impatiently in the wings, we can care less about it, in turn creating a careless culture.

Think about the perpetual dissatisfaction surrounding iPhone, one of the most transformative and thoughtfully designed pieces of personal tech over the last couple of decades. And yet people are never happy. People didn’t want the iPhone 5C. Or the 7. Definitely not the XR Max.

They wanted a new different thing. That had the same novelty and beauty and mind-bending social, cultural and business impact as the original iPhone. A new different thing. Every fucking year. Even Apple got impatient with…

Nick Barham
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