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Technology And The Never-Ending Drive To “Progress”

In January 2010, I met with my dissertation director and mentor who, after our lunch, instructed me to see Tino Sehgal’s installation entitled “This is Progress” at the Guggenheim. I inquired about the show and he said, “I’m in it…” and then wouldn’t elaborate further not wanting to ruin my experience. This was a great decision on his part because I arrived at the Guggenheim and was taken on a journey I now compare to Alice in Wonderland jumping down the rabbit hole.

Just after checking in my coat, I entered the vast glass façade of the museum and was met by a girl of about nine years of age who introduces herself and then says, “What is progress?” as she encourages me to walk with up the ramp alongside her.  We began our ascent along the spiraling form of the museum’s nautilus design and as I was both bemused by the immersion in this performance and taken with her question. I responded stating that progress is a perspective towards a backward look to tradition and a refractive effect of how we envisage the future. She then introduced me to a teenager and she summarized with great precision to this young man what I had told her about my ideas on progress. Then he and I began our walk as the girl bid us farewell. He proceeded with the discussion on progress and we engaged for another whirl around the Guggenheim at which point he introduced me to a woman in her late twenties or so who then hijacked our discussion, the young man slipped away and there I was with a new guide. And so went this winter afternoon as I would look outside to Central Park, the reminder that this was a work on progress. Or was it?

This performance piece of sorts, in which I was thrust, coincided perfectly with my task in New York at the time. I was finishing up a draft of my first book which in part dealt with the conflicting notions of modernity from the period of the Enlightenment, Columbus’ conquest of the Americas, Cortes’ conquests in Mexico through the French’s colonization of Morocco. Indeed, what was “progress” for one part of each of these equations, was a disaster for those on the receiving end. “The history of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat,” so goes the infamous line from Sweeney Todd.

I have recently written about industrial designer Brooks Stevens who is credited with the notion and implementation of “planned obsolescence” which encourages incremental design updates in order to promote the continued consumption of consumer objects rendering them both necessary and updatable. Planned obsolescence has moved far outside the field of industrial design and pervades most every commodity within capitalism ranging from kitchenware to smartwatches to smart-home gadgets and while writing about this phenomenon and its ecological impact today, I kept asking myself what motivates us to buy into the upgrade culture. Where Windows 10 now automatically updates itself and where website builders do almost all the work of automating the process of creating an online presence, we are caught in a gyre of perpetually updating softwares which now act on their own, notifying us by email that updates were performed. It is as if our collective and slow march towards “progress” were happening irrespective of our acquiescence. Certainly, such innovations are the dream child of capitalism:  the need to upgrade is built into the system such that one must keep purchasing in order to use the product purchased x months before. It is capitalism as a metaphorical intravenous support system in which the customer is turned into a repeat client.

But are we truly obliged to purchase in the first place?  After all, we could entirely avoid the upgrade culture by simply going analogue.  I mean it’s not like we are powerless to completely opt out of this incessant culture of technological betterment and ostensible progress. How is it that planned obsolescence feeds on the notion of progress if we are slaves to this progress?

In fact, what is being created with each new tech update is the very same micro improvement (eg. better screen resolution, colors) described years ago by Stevens. But today these updates are accompanied by a tsunami of marketing of this micro-improvement such that the consumer is made to believe that she will receive a revolutionary new product when in reality, what is being purchased is nothing more than a promise to purchase again. It is the drip-drip of capitalist dependency which implicates the user in a never-ending—albeit unspoken—contract to remain forever a loyal consumer who partakes of the inevitability of a newer everything.

The reality about planned obsolescence is that we pretend that we are victims of a contemporary Hal who has taken over our lives, when in fact we do have options beginning with a swift retreat from the virtuality of automatization. Within the ideology of technological obsolescence, there are both hardware and software factors to be considered. Obsolescence operates on the notion that we must keep up with critical leaps in hardware, changing durability, and faster and better software all of which contribute to how technology is bought or upgraded. Aside from our computers, there are smartphone, home devices, and electric vehicles all part of the technological framework which necessitate persistent upgrades. Nowadays, we barely have to lift a finger for software updates and our devices either asks us if we would like to update or more common it just updates and informs us of this act. Even if we resist upgrading our hardware, the heavier software upgrades over time invariably necessitate the hardware upgrade and we are caught, one way or another, in participating in this persistence of obsolescence avoidance. That is, we are stuck only if we decide to remain within this system. In reality, we are free to jump out.

More than ever today, the constant upgrades to software mean that users must continually invest money into a product that they not only have bought once, but for which they are now hooked into supporting by virtue of the original purchase. Subscription models for software are replacing the old-style software licenses and even WordPress theme creators are offering their products on a purchase basis with separate fees for upgrades where years before these same creators allowed for free upgrades. But wait, doesn’t the fact I purchased a product give me the right to have unlimited upgrades for life? The short answer is no. And I do feel your pain. Six months ago I accidentally deleted my Adobe Acrobat Reader from my computer and still cannot certify the new download due to the fact that Adobe is not recognizing my license while pushing me towards their subscription model. I almost wept at the death of old world capitalism where you could purchase a product once and it was yours. New Capitalism means that we must purchase in perpetuity in order to get one nanosecond closer to the ideal of progress while having access to the commodity. The upgrade confers your product is simply never enough and this process of seeking the “up to date” has become the postmodern baptism of authenticity within a clear moral dimension where progress is measured in terms of the proximity to wealth and to technology and the ability to keep this technology alive through a constant economic investment. It could be said that “freedom” today is measured in terms of one’s ability to contribute to this technocratic model of “empowerment.”

Over thirty years ago, Indian scholar, Ashis Nandy, wrote on a scathing critique of the development model, noting how the centralized doxa of development policies strip the person down ideologically.  It is worth noting the parallels with what he observed then as today technology is quickly becoming another moralized core which atomizes individuals whereby their only “freedoms” are dictated to them by market forces and technology. He writes:

The only initiative the person is left with relates to choices from among available consumables offered by the global market. From health care to child rearing it is the same story. While the area of individual choice has shrunk, a false sense of freedom is created through the removal of the contextualizing role of the community from the choice situation. Indeed, atomized in the name of freedom, the person now stands alone against the forces of the global market and mega-technology.

Nandy points to the inverse relationship between actual human choices and the market “choices” offered instead where the market offers seemingly infinite supplies and where the human accession to freedom is more and more restricted.

With the rise of the subscription model, we are implicated to buy more (and more) and to partake in the upgrade function of consumerism such that the only way to resist is to get out completely. Yes, this is the Godfather III of tech moments—“Just When I Thought I Was Out, They Pull Me Back In!” Still, the cold reality is that we are not obliged to buy into consumerism as progress any more than Michael Corleone had to have Fredo killed.

The greatest casualties of technological automatism has been our autonomy as thinking and sentient beings in addition to our communities. Perhaps there is no subtle irony in the fact that the more technologically advanced we become, the more we allow ourselves to be victims to the very technology that we claim liberates us.

Our task today must be to decipher that subtle line between need and want—and then to act in good faith.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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