Upgrade Culture: We’re all Obsolescents

Nick Barham
Jan 15 · 6 min read

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 itself, releasing the 8 and X on the same day. No time for a 9, too busy upgrading.

People compare the two versions — the upgraded and the outdated — and feel cheated by the “amount” of upgrade achieved. Every phone drop is accompanied by a stream of reviews that scream “boring”, “not enough”, “not what I wanted”. Living in anticipation of the next at the expense of the now.

Inevitably we moved from upgrading things to upgrading people.

In 2006 Beyonce demanded “Partner, let me upgrade u”. With the switch from a noun to a verb, an upgrade went from something that you bought to something that can happen to you…with or without your permission.

Leonardo diCaprio raised the stakes by encouraging us to look at ourselves — “Every next level of your life will demand a different you” — and once that infiltrated the inspirational quotes websites, it gained that strange status of opinion stated as fact. So no surprise that business followed: Pat Divilly, Entrepreneur and Forbes magazines all offer guidance for how you can “Upgrade Your Life”.

We’re all searching for the next level: whether it’s a phone, a partner or our own identity. And the intoxicating speed of upgrade culture often means we forget to enjoy what we currently have or appreciate who we currently are as we imagine what comes next. The unintended effect of upgrade culture is that the desire to upgrade one thing becomes a desire to upgrade everything.

We used to anthropomorphize technology; now we technomorphize people.

Our willingness to consign other products (and people) to obsolescence is really an expression of our own fear of irrelevance. This is both a personal fear — am I too old/young/inexperienced/experienced for that job/person/dress/festival — and a species fear. Harari and Hawking both suggest Homo Sapiens’ destiny is to become outdated and irrelevant as we merge with AI in the ultimate upgrade.

“Most humans won’t be upgraded, and will consequently become an inferior caste dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans.”

We are all approaching obsolescence from the time we’re born. We’re all obsolsecents.

In his frequent polemics against the negative effects of Big Tech, Tristan Harris — the ex-Googler-with-a-conscience who founded the Center for Humane Technology — has his own term for what’s going on: the human downgrade.

“While we’ve been upgrading our technology we’ve been downgrading humanity. [It’s a] downgrading of our relationships, a downgrading of our attention, a downgrading of democracy, a downgrading of our sense of decency.”

This is what happens when you let let tech set the pace. Tech has clear objectives for itself — efficiency, precision, scale, replication — but no affection for us. It does not care when our best intentions and hopes go sideways.

And the acceleration continues. Moore’s Law, our accelerometer for measuring processing speeds for over fifty years, is being challenged by the emergence of quantum computing, which promises “doubly exponential growth relatively to conventional computing”.

Qubits — the basic unit of quantum information — can exist in a superposition of two states simultaneously. Likewise we are more available, more valuable if we become quantum consumers. Our superposition: bingeing Netflix at the same time as Tweeting/Twitching/TikTokking and buying the infinite stuff on Instagram and Amazon.

Like many things quantum, this can feel like a kind of magic, extending the number of consumer hours available to any smart company. But there is nothing super about a position when it all feels like distraction.

Technology and people work at different speeds. Rather than trying to keep up with tech, how tech work better at human scale?

It should be no surprise that two of the biggest hits at CES — which claims to be “the global stage for innovation” — were sausages and vibrators. Amidst the AI and AR and robots and smart cities and promises of autonomous everything, here were things that we could use right now.

This is NormTech. Rather than waiting for the next shiny, disruptive gadget to deliver us to an unreal future, this is technology that helps us live better today. In this moment, not a perpetually deferred tomorrow. Solving important problems — closing the pleasure gap, rethinking how 7 billion people should feed themselves without further destroying the planet — by understanding what people need, not what technology can do.

A culture of upgrade raises questions. What’s the right balance between ambition and dissatisfaction? We all want to move on. But how fast? What do we leave behind? And how do we jump off the upgrade cycle?

We can start with how we view ourselves. A 21st century condition: the delusion of our own exceptionalism. We look high; we believe we are better than others, so we deserve better things. But perhaps we are at our best when we think below ourselves. And demand less.

Can we measure ourselves a little less? The myth of the quantified self — delivered through a stream of metrics that range from the mundane to the precious (hours and quality of sleep, calories consumed, steps taken, heart beats, number of friends, like-ability, attraction) — is that we will get to know ourselves better. The reality is that this kind of incessant self-tracking is more likely to bring with it a constant sense of background dissatisfaction, a gnawing feeling that we’re not doing right by ourselves. Humans are a work in progress; we are not made to be measured.

The very nature of self-optimization requires us to take an objective look at ourselves and count the ways we fall short of some idealized and unlikely future version. But when it comes to ourselves, objectivity is impossible. We can only take ourselves personally. Where is the line between complacency and dissatisfaction?

Can we upgrade our lives by downgrading the level of examination and inspection that we put ourselves through every day? How great might our lives be now if we weren’t always trying to make them better?


Having advised the Founders of Apple, Airbnb, Glossier…

Nick Barham

Written by

Partner at FNDR. We work with Founders.



Having advised the Founders of Apple, Airbnb, Glossier, Snap and many more, FNDR provides other Founders with a radical, practical and unique perspective on their business. https://www.fndr.co

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