We have a conflicted relationship with our digital devices. On the one hand, everything we own is cutting-edge — your regular smartphone does computation that is more advanced and powerful than the computers currently functioning on the space probe on Mars. On the other, everything that we own, is almost on the verge of becoming old — by the time you are used to your phone, a new model with a different letter or a number is in the market. The TV screen which was the crowning glory of your house now feels old because it is not thin enough, sleek enough or big enough; waiting to be replaced by the Next Big Thing.
Strangely, the Next Big Thing is never really big enough for it to have longevity. The next phone that you buy, the new laptop you covet, the app that you update, will already feel temporary. Patricia Fitzpatrick, a historian of new media, calls this phenomenon “Planned Obsolescence”. It means that private corporations think of their digital products as fast-moving and ready to die. They might sell the phone with a 10-year guarantee, but the only guarantee that exists is that in 10 years, they will have discontinued all support for that phone, and you will have forgotten that you owned that device. Planned Obsole-scence is a marketing strategy, where everything that is introduced as a technological innovation has a limited shelf-life and is made to be replaced by something new.
What is interesting about this strategy is that it doesn’t mean that your device has become redundant. In fact, even as you desire the new, you know perfectly well that your existing device has many years of functionality. Hence, the companies often produce the new as path-breaking, innovative and futuristic. They want you to feel primitive or out-of-touch by introducing features that you don’t need, transforming the familiar and the habitual device with something that becomes alien, enchanting and mystical.
While planned obsolescence has its value — it propels innovation and pushes at the boundary of what is possible — it also needs to be understood as a marketing strategy that keeps us consuming as part of our digital habits. One of the best examples to understand this trend is Apple’s latest announcement that it has removed the standard earphone jack from its new iPhone7 and is presenting us with wireless earplugs that work with the new phone. Apple insists that this is the future, and in its hyperbolic presentation, announced that by removing one of the most enduring industry standard for audio hardware, they are revolutionising the future of music listening.
This comes particularly as a shock because ever since the 1990s, Apple’s iconic presence in the music industry has been the white dangling ear-bud wire against black silhouettes, marking the Apple music device as a sign of privacy, maturity, creativity, and elite affordability. By replacing recognisable image with a new one is the company’s way of signalling that every Apple device you now own is ready for trash. It is letting you know that your older Apple music player now needs to be replaced by a new one that uses the wireless ear buds. That the only way you can now listen to music on an Apple iPhone is on Apple’s own standards, so that the regular industry hardware will no longer work with this unique phone that eschews universal standards and seeks to create private monopolies.
The missing headphone jack in the iPhone 7 is a resounding testimony to what happens when we make our digital hardware subject to closed development and production. Instead of building phones that are more durable, more efficient, more connected, more affordable, and more versatile, Apple just showed us how a private company can arrogantly define the future, by turning almost every existing device into “primitive” or “incompatible” with the new phones that it is making. The capacity of companies like Apple to defy standards that work and build their own unique hardware tells an alarming story of what we lose when we lose control of our devices. The digital cultures scholar Wendy Chun had once sagaciously written, “the more our devices turn transparent, the more opaque they become”. And Apple’s move towards making your new iPhone seamless and without holes, mimics how the phone is being designed to both kill fast and die early, promoting corporate ambitions over public interest.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.