Capitalism’s mania for “improvements”

Progress, in capitalism, means steady market growth and constant product improvements, whether people want to be marketed to or have the useful products they rely on redesigned or not. Most people of a certain age are familiar with the term “planned obsolescence”. For those who are not:

a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

The plan is to make ever greater profits by forcing people to keep buying new things to replace consumer goods designed to become obsolete, outmoded, uncool, unfashionable, useless for their customary purpose. Corporations steadily produce groundbreaking new consumer items, branded, unveiled and advertised with fabulous fanfare, that have to be replaced frequently with updated models. For good measure we have designed a new, improved power cord that won’t fit your current device or older devices, we don’t sell the old power cord anymore, just upgrade your phone and toss all the old ones. This is a trillion dollar business model that has produced countless innovative billionaires (as well as, sadly, a mountain of deadly products left to poison the earth).

Everyone today knows the short term version of the drill as simply “updates” or “upgrades”. In computer and phone-related retail, for the short-term game, all you need to do is force people to constantly update their devices and all sorts of wonderful things can be achieved. My podcast player keeps upgrading its ability to deliver ads that cannot be defeated. The ads of savagely competitive Jeff Fucking Bezos are the best, his undefeatable ads play at top volume OVER the podcast you are trying to listen to. When the ad is done you simply rewind to catch the five to fifteen seconds that were drowned out by the sound of an ear shattering jackhammer being muted, finally, by the noise canceling headphones fucking Bezos is hamfistedly trying to sell to everyone.

Rooms full of Andys [1], creative engineering types on the spectrum, are kept busy constantly tweaking the devices and applications we are constantly using. The “updates” do not always improve the product, often disabling familiar, essential features, but… fuck it, just buy a new device if your old one is giving you crap. Life is change. Capitalism certainly is — as long as the change keeps the extractive engines humming full throttle and new customers are cultivated in every corner of the world.

Here’s a mildly sickening example of forced updates nobody but the seller would ever want. I used to run an animation workshop for elementary school kids, I’d bring a small digital camera, a camera stand, a few small lights and a Macbook laptop computer into the room. Within ten minutes the workshop was humming. While kids choreographed and shot their animations, another team would be swapping out the camera’s SD card, uploading the new frames to the computer, opening the program iMovie and starting to make the day’s single frame animation. Music would be added from a program called Garageband, which allowed kids to improvise and easily remove any mistakes they made. The beauty of the macBook, running Operating System 10.6.8, or earlier, was the seamless integration of its various creative programs. Kids could create music in Garageband, easily drag into iMovie from Garageband. They could overdub multiple tracks of narration on top of the music, frames could be tweaked in an onboard graphics program, dragged into iMovie.

Once I stupidly updated the macBook. The new operating system updated and reconfigured all the programs. Suddenly Garageband became more automated, based on customer feedback, or the quirky whims of a room full of Andys, I suppose, and it became impossible to quickly correct mistakes on the fly. When an 8 year-old sound engineer tried to fix a mistake the old command gave a new result– auto-quantize– make your track adhere more strictly to the metronome. The kids never used the metronome. It was very frustrating how hard it became to fix mistakes that in the previous version were so simple to fix that second and third graders mastered it instantly and quickly taught others to do it.

Yes, an engineer at Apple told me on the phone, not everybody liked the newly disabled programs, he didn’t like it himself, and, of course, they were driven by corporate greed (why give things for free when you can claw them back and sell them?) but once the update was done there was no way to revert back to the previous version of the program. Best bet, he told me, was to buy a used MacBook running 10.6.8 or earlier and never update it. They eventually disabled enough features of iMovie that it became impossible to do single frame animation in iMovie, you had to buy a “professional” program from Apple to do what once came included in your computer.

I am tapping away on WordPress, which “improved” their writing editor in ways that made it more cumbersome than it was before. They touted this brilliant new “blocks” system, which replaced a perfectly useful one, even as they made the “theme” I am using obsolete. The tech term for this is “not supported”. You can use it, but nobody at WordPress can do much except urge you to switch to a supported theme. It’s true you could lose all of your content, which can no longer be backed up easily (we eliminated the RSS feed which used to allow you to cut and paste all content into a form you could save) but your experience will be enhanced, as the rooms full of WordPress Andys designed it to be.

The other day I was able to type on WordPress without straining my eyes. I’d see the words like this:

On the updated viewer, the best one can do is this:

If that’s hard on your old eyes, dude, just get stronger glasses, man. What the fuck do you want us to do, bro? Many people think this is a cool new improvement, (asshole…) OK, we just made that up, everybody hates it, but — you know what? Fuck them all and, with respect, sir, fuck you. We are the vanguard of the new world, innovative masters of the digital universe, and you are a carping dinosaur. Why not just simply go extinct if you don’t like the way we do things now?

Well, anyway, it is hard on my old eyes tapping away here. I devised a workaround, that I will use for all future posts. I will henceforth write in a word processing program, OpenOffice, wonderful, free and open-sourced, then select all, copy, paste into this fucking editor which I can then squint at like the bitter old fuck I am.

And make no mistake, when it comes to predatory fucking capitalism, a massive machine that never apologizes for any crime and is always quick to justify any “externality” (when people are killed in the name of profit, like in Bhopal, India, for example, that’s an “externality” the corporation has to account for, a small portion of the profits will go toward a secret settlement with the families of the dead, assuming they have excellent lawyers that can hold us to account) — I am an extremely bitter old fuck.

[1]

I had a friend named Andy, bright, witty, socially maladroit and occasionally locked up in a laughing academy until his wilder moods could be stabilized, who made a nice living writing computer code. He was responsible for how websites acted, where the buttons were to make things work and so forth. I’d observed many times how idiosyncratic Andy was, he always radically adjusted your desk chair when he sat in it, immediately retuned your guitar (breaking a string once in a while) and so forth. I later realized he was probably somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum. What was intuitive and useful to him was by no means universal, is what I’m trying to say.

Drop me a line

When I was a teenager, and I made friends who lived in other states, we’d keep in touch by letters and phone calls. Long distance calls were expensive, but letters could be written any time, drawn on, dropped in the mail and delivered within two or three days for the price of a full-sized chocolate bar (in those days less than a quarter, believe it or not). “Drop me a line,” we’d say, taking our leave of each other, and get busy, on a bus, a train, lying on a couch, setting pen to paper. It was always a great moment when a return letter arrived, particularly when a friend came up with an inventive envelope (for a time we always tried to top each other with wild, ridiculous hand-made envelopes).

Now, those were, to be sure, primitive times, very similar, in terms of communication, to the previous hundred years or so. We did not carry small, powerful personal computers in our pockets that could also be used to text, tweet, make phone calls and video chats. We sat and wrote by hand, folded the pages, put them in an envelope, addressed it, put a stamp on it and dropped it in the mail box. Seems unreal now, even though I sometimes still send drawings and scrawled notes to a small circle of people from time to time.

Here’s a “funny” thing, though. People regularly don’t know what to say when they get something in the mail (and, admittedly, my letters are often more visual than literary, so theres’s also that). As often as not I never even find out my letter has reached its intended recipient, unless I follow up later by text. I have a few theories, including that people in general don’t know how to react to “art” (particularly if it is not monetized, official, etc.), but it is notable, I think, that if you ask a question in a colorful, handwritten letter, you will virtually never get an answer to that question. Although, of course, it’s not hard to see why this letter may not have received a response:

I get that there’s something a bit maniacal-looking there. It is part of my graphomania, when it strikes, I am helpless against it. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to have a question, asked simply, unaddressed when it is written on a page, with other stuff, and mailed to somebody. This is my experience anyway, not many people are attuned to the art of old-time correspondence in our era of super-terse hyper LOL instant response-demanding knee jerks. It was not always this way, my young friends, and, like anything else, the old way was not without its pains in the ass.

I had a close friend for many years, a prodigious correspondent, who was a solipcist. By this I mean that he was convinced of his own reality in the world, (because he thought, and therefore, he was), but was not convinced anyone could ever truly know what was in somebody else’s mind or heart, or even if they actually existed, independently, outside of his perception. This belief, to me, is the essence of intellectualized alienation and a ticket to misery, as it was in his case, but he sure loved to write long, complex letters, in spite of his deep skepticism about anyone actually being able to truly understand anything he expressed.

At a certain point, tired of getting ten page, two-sided letters, mostly about his troubles and unresponsive to anything I’d written, I negotiated a deal with him. We agreed that in every letter, often at the end, we’d re-read the other person’s letter and briefly respond to everything of note. These quick responses would be set off between ellipses, the old dot dot dot (or in the Orange Polyp’s case dot dot dot dot dot dot) in the manner of famous antisemitic doctor and novelist Ferdinand Celine… the Celine section we called it… as in “now I will review and Celine your latest”.

It turned out to be a great innovation. You’d get actual feedback on things you’d written, a response.

“Yer description of the putz — on the nose … no, I never tried ayahuasca, did you ever find some?… she’s always like that, remember August 1971 for but one famous example … they suck, as you have noted whenever the name of their Nazi owner comes up … funny bit about your urinary troubles, if you know what I mean … further comments on the issue of solipcism are in order, remind me next time, if you actually DO exist independent of my perceptions of you …”

While not spontaneous or ideal, this enforced mutual responsiveness was a great improvement to our correspondence and probably extended our friendship by several years.

To me, having a dialogue is like having a leisurely catch. You throw me the ball, I hold it for a second, feeling its texture and its weight, and I toss it back to you, placing the ball in the air where you can easily catch it. We do this until we agree we’ve done it enough. Nothing is more natural, I think, than tossing a ball back and forth on a nice day.

This kind of meditative back and forth is tragically a more and more rare experience in our always in a hurry, time is money, make your point in 140 characters, too late, wait, I was distracted, what was I saying? society. Because we are always in a hurry, and time is not only money but money is free speech, and because so much free speech is also false, and the firehose of mendacity sprays full bore, torrent so powerful it can rip your skin off … I’m sorry, what were you saying? Wait, I’m getting another call… oh, God, here’s a text coming in too, a very important one, can you… hang on, Oh I don’t believe it! I don’t fucking believe it! Wait til I send you this… on second thought, maybe not, can you hold, can I call… what the hell do they want now?… can you text me later?

Ah, you know what, I’ll drop you a line.

Though I’ve learned to deal with it better and better in recent years, I am predisposed to a tic about silence by way of reply, because my father, in his most sadistic moments, would simply refuse to reply, deploying the old deniable silence (“what are you whining about, I didn’t even fucking hear you”) to wound quite effectively. So silence by way of reply when I ask a question has long had a kryptonite effect on me. Still, as a general rule, we all want to know we are being heard and replied to sensibly. It does not happen enough these days in general, which is one major reason people are so isolated and ready to jump into an online rabbit hole like QAnon that provides a false sense of community to those lonely, crazy souls who embrace it, “where we go one, we go all”, and shit.

It is worth the minute or two it might take, when a friend asks you a question that requires an answer, to actually digest what they are looking for, indicate confusion if there is any, wait for clarification and then think for ten seconds or so before giving your thoughtful reply. Worth it in my humble (and my conceited) opinion, anyway.