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Lamenting Intentional Obsolescence

My personal operating system is just not compatible with throwing away a device every time an upgrade comes along

Last weekend, I attended a conference about dreams. One of the opening sessions, facilitated by a Jungian psychologist, focused on what differentiates man from machine in the age of artificial intelligence — certainly the ability to dream is one of those few defining human factors.

To open his talk, the speaker asked that anyone in the audience who doesn’t have a cellphone stand. No one stood. He then asked that anyone who has a first generation (aka “stupid”) phone stand. One person in the room stood up. Me. I pulled the small Samsung, my first and only cellphone, which I have had since 2006, out of my pocket, and held it up for all to see.

I am a proud Luddite. I got my first cellphone long after many people were already on their second or third, and only because a lot of my work at the time was in the field. Despite mounting pressure, I am still resisting purchasing a smartphone. There are several reasons for this. The first is that I don’t trust the strength of my discipline to prevent me from becoming one of those people you see on buses, trains, in restaurants, parks, movies, theaters… well, anywhere really, who are glued to their phones like metal to a magnet, ignoring the view, the passersby, or the person with whom they’re dining. Secondly, the idea that what I discuss in a phone conversation will then show up in my google ads or Facebook feed, totally gives me the creeps. I don’t like to be reminded that we are all constantly under the eye of Big Brother, somersaulting down a slippery slope, wildly out of control.

But despite all this, six years ago, on the eve of an extended trip to the Far East, I walked into iDigital in Eilat, and bought an iPad mini. At the time, it was the most expensive single item I’d ever purchased (I live a frugal life), even without the VAT. On the trip, and ever since, the iPad has been a wonderful companion, making it unnecessary for me to use a computer at home for anything other than serious writing, editing, or translating. The iPad makes everything easy (and yes, I know, if I would buy a smartphone, everything would be even easier), so easy that I spend about quadruple the time I’d want to on the Internet. After being an avid reader all my life, virtually the only book I read these days is Facebook. Clearly the iPad is not to blame for this, but I know my weaknesses, and am doing my best to avoid temptation.

About three years ago, I had a small problem with the iPad. I went into iDigital in Tel Aviv for help. There, the salesman turned his nose up at my beloved iPad and said “Geveret, don’t you think it’s time to upgrade?” I was stunned. I’d owned the most expensive purchase of my life to date for only three years, and he was suggesting that I upgrade. I have a washing machine and a fridge that are over 25 years old and, Bli ayin hara, they work perfectly. My cellphone is 13 years old. My first toostoos lasted 14 years. All these were manufactured in an era when things were built to last, when appliance longevity was an asset. Now things are built to be upgraded every three years or so, causing a massive amount of electronic waste, and encouraging people to part with their money needlessly. And the fact that this ploy is successful, to me, is a clear indication of much that is wrong with the 21st-century world. People line up around the block to buy the newest model of iPhone or whatever phone or gadget the day it’s released, as if the world would end if they bought it a day or a week later, or didn’t buy it at all. What does that say about us??

I remember the first time I saw a mobile phone. It was in the mid-1990s. I was standing in line at a theater with my mother, and a man ahead of us was speaking into a phone as big as a shoe, and sort of shaped like one, too. I looked at my mother and said, “This is the beginning of the end of the world.” And I think, in many ways, I was right.

I know that my argument is an indication of my stubbornness, sticking to principles and old ways at the expense of saving time and energy. During my lifetime we have moved from manual to electric typewriters to computers to tablets and smartphones. We have moved from film to digital, from black and white televisions with two channels to color TVs to VHS players, to DVD drives, to discs-on-key to provide us with entertainment. I do use technology, but to a minimum. I don’t have Netflix and don’t download films. I read books made of paper and not backlit on a screen. But I do use email and Facebook, as I’ve said, much more than I’d like. But when I look around me at our screen-addicted society, and children who no longer scrape their knees playing outside, and the fact that we are all accessible all the time, wherever we are, I remember my reaction to that shoe-sized phone, and feel that it was justified.

By now I’m sure you’ve surmised that I didn’t upgrade my iPad, and I’ve continued to use it happily ever since. Until two days ago.

My father lives in Canada. He is beyond gvurot in years and has recently been facing some serious health challenges. Like me, he does not have a smartphone and does not buy into commercial hype. My main method of communication with him is via Skype. It is also my primary form of communication with my teacher in India. Two days ago, I opened Skype on my iPad to call my dad, and was informed that my version of Skype was out of date and that I need to download the new version.

However, the new version requires an operating system that is incompatible with my old (6 years… my goodness, if that’s old, I must be a fossil) iPad. So… if I want to use Skype on an iPad, I need to buy a new iPad. Or I could buy a smartphone and use it from there. But I ask myself, how long will it be until I can’t use the apps on them either, and will be forced to buy yet a newer device? The period of time between newness and obsolescence is becoming ever shorter, as technology develops at a dizzying speed.

But one of the most subversive aspects of this situation is the intentionality behind this obsolescence. Why, for example, could Skype not keep its older version available to those who have older devices? Skype is no longer available on certain versions of Windows 10 either, and how old is that? IMHO, this obsolescence is a systematic method adopted by these companies to force people to upgrade. To force people to part with their money. And often, this is perfectly synchronized with consumers’ desires to always have the latest item as quickly as possible, a desire strong enough to have people lining up around the block. The companies keep doing it because we keep agreeing. And in doing so, we keep throwing away our money and creating electronic waste that threatens the only planet we have as a home.

So for now, I still refuse to be part of this. For the time being, I will have to speak to my father on the phone, Heaven forfend. Next to my bed, I have an old touch-tone phone with a squiggly cord attaching it to its receiver and another cord attaching it to the wall. It was once the newest thing (remember the shift from dial to touch-tone phones and what a revolution it was?), but is now some 25 years old. I expect that it will serve me longer than the newest version of iPad or smartphone.

About the Author
Ruthi Soudack, originally from Vancouver, arrived in Jerusalem for a short visit three days after the beginning of the first intifada, and has been here ever since. She is a traveller, yoga teacher, writer, translator, editor, storyteller, musician, and occasionally, a stand-up comic. (Profile picture by Shira Aboulafia)
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