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.