Awareness · I and Thou · Metaphors · Pop-culture spirituality · Post-postmodernism

The Culture of Upgrades

I don’t own a smartphone. I like to call, wryly, what I have a dumbphone. It does calls and texts and no internet things. I once owned a smartphone, but downgraded several years back, during a period of time when being a starving grad student temporarily got way too real. Now I could easily switch back to a smartphone, but I find that I don’t want to.

Let me emphasize that I originally gave up my smartphone not out of any ascetic impulse or heroic renunciation, but simply out of a desire to save money on my monthly phone bill. Nonetheless, after I had downgraded, I discovered that, incidentally, not having a smartphone greatly improved my mood and general outlook on life. I was no longer tied to a constant stream of facebook updates, emails, and random distracting websites. When I shut down my computer or headed out the door, I truly disconnected, and found that I noticed and appreciated everything so much more. Instead of watching other people’s lives, I was living my own.

For a few months, I got to delve even deeper into this Luddite fantasy when my laptop broke and I delayed getting a new one. I used the computer labs at the colleges where I taught to prepare my classes, do my work and catch up on emails. When I was at home, I was entirely without a source of internet. It was glorious. In the evenings, with no work to do, I would crack open a book (I was, appropriately enough, reading Tales of the Hasidim at the time), and sink into a retreat-like stillness.

Not only this, but not having a smartphone makes me free from the need to get a new and better phone at periodic intervals of time. There’s really no need to upgrade a dumbphone, and I might keep mine until it breaks, which it hasn’t done so far despite my copious dropping of it on hard surfaces.

Funny, this impulse to upgrade, especially when the item you have still works perfectly well. This impulse, of course, extends not merely to phones, but to cars, clothes, houses, and really any manufactured item you could think of. Whatever it is, you must get a new one of it, because everyone else is also getting a new one.

Upgrading your phone from time to time is probably harmless, but this generalized impulse to be constantly upgrading, writ large in our society, is dangerous and generates unhappiness. Most obviously, routinely getting new things and new versions of things, when we don’t really need them, drains us financially, damages the environment, and keeps us locked in a constant cycle of buying, because there will never be an “ultimate” version of any of these consumer goods. (I should also admit here that, like many women who practice yoga, I am not immune to the lure of fancy yoga clothes. Mea culpa).

From an advertising standpoint, convincing people that they need to upgrade everything constantly is brilliant, because it creates a “felt need” that didn’t exist before. Smartphones are a felt need. For the majority of human history, people did just fine without them, and certainly Genghis Khan or whatever conqueror didn’t survey his mountains of loot and trains of terrified captives and think, “very nice, but if only I had a smartphone!” Now, on the other hand, many people can’t conceive of life without one.

Creating a felt need is capitalism 101, and enterprising individuals have been using the tactic since the age of colonization, which was basically Europe’s (and later the United States’) search for new markets around the world, sometimes by violent means. Felt need transformed traditional societies and untouched indigenous tribes into good subjects and consumers, sometimes succeeding in bringing them into the capitalist fold when the use of force had failed.

This upgrade mentality is sneaky. It can gradually trickle over from our attitudes towards consumer goods to our attitudes towards people, ideas, and values, leading eventually to a soul-numbing utilitarianism. Under its influence, people also routinely replace their romantic partners with someone younger or more exciting, neglect their old friends when they meet someone more interesting or influential, and hop from spiritual system to spiritual system, looking for that perfect (and hopefully sacrifice-free) metaphysical self-gratification. They evaluate people–their “features,” their strengths and weaknesses– in much the same way that you would evaluate a device at the Apple store when considering a purchase. There are no real “I-thou” relationships under this mentality, only two people mutually using one another, in the best-case scenario.

Sometimes I feel like people have taken the messages of advertising way too seriously. The pitch of most ads is that X will make you happy, that X is just what you’ve been looking for all this time to fill that empty spot in your life. X will solve your problems. X, of course, doesn’t have to be a smartphone. Spiritually-minded people are told that this tropical yoga retreat, self-help book, 30-day yoga challenge, or green juice cleanse will “transform” and “change” their lives. It’s exactly the same pitch, just dressed up in lululemon or mala beads.

Somehow, many of us have convinced ourselves that just the right mixture of kale salads, cold-pressed juices, workshops with famous teachers, and “mindful” living (a dreadfully facile term) will save us. Because we aren’t happy, and so obviously haven’t found the right balance yet, we adjust, putter, and squirm in our lives like a sense-averse person in tight clothes. Even those “you can be happy” affirmations that people share on facebook often contain the terrible subtext that we are entirely in control of our search for happiness, and that this is a lonely, independent search which we undertake as Byronic heroes (or, even worse, Ayn Rand-ish types). This faith, so to speak, that the right object of consumption is out there, along with the restless desire to find it and the perpetual frustration of not finding it, constitute a special, uniquely modern form of existential torment. I’ve noticed this phenomenon manifest itself in the world of modern yoga, but doubtless it has other iterations in other spheres of interest and subcultures as well.

I know, as a counter to my assertions one could say that we need to constantly improve ourselves, search for a better life, and avoid complacency, or else run the risk of stagnation. We need Columbuses and pioneers, one could say, fiery souls whose inner discontent uncovered the paths to new worlds– or, possibly, not Columbuses and pioneers, because that history carries a shadow side, which is the depopulation of the Americas, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and a myriad of other injustices, justified by some because they made possible that heroic myth of blazing new paths through the wilderness. There is often a ruthless side to the narrative of improvement.

Not only this, but constantly improving and upgrading everything quickly becomes itself a kind of tedium. The English writer G. K. Chesterton grasped this around a century ago when he criticized a line of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change.” Chesterton said that the line, though compelling, also implied being stuck in that same groove of progress, forever moving in the same direction, unable to change or stop. The ethic of upgrading has no clear end point, leaving us spinning forever down the grooves of change, unless you say that our goal should be to conquer death, or nature, or to become like gods, which each carry their own horrible implications and call to mind the Tower of Babel. Besides, the next lines of Tennyson’s poem, “Locksley Hall,” are decidedly colonialist-sounding: “Thro’ the shadow of the globe we sweep into the younger day; Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.”

Using quotes from lululemon bags is a dangerous business, but, entirely by coincidence, and probably entirely unintended on their part, I’ve seen a quote on one of their tote bags that exactly describes this phenomenon: “The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.” Now, I would qualify this a little, because clearly there are people who are unhappy from causes other than the frustrated pursuit of happiness. It would be disingenuous and disrespectful to say to victims of great historical tragedies, like the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges, that they somehow brought it on themselves. Not only that, but disease, war, poverty, natural disasters, accidents, and a host of other ills are clearly independent causes of unhappiness, which afflict the just and unjust alike.

I would say, instead, “The pursuit of happiness can be a source of unhappiness.” This is especially true for those who have accepted the postmodern notion of the entirely autonomous, entirely self-determining individual, who is perhaps more free from the strictures of traditional communities than at any previous period in history. If we believe that we are truly atomized, that we are “islands,” and that reality is of our own determining, then we will drive ourselves insane trying to construct a pleasant reality. If we view happiness as something to possess and control, we will be bewildered by our inability to control it and keep it.

How can we be happy, then? After all, everyone also has this innate desire for happiness, although they choose to act on it in different ways.

That, I won’t say, as I don’t have all the answers. But I will say that the answer is not to be found in the latest smartphone.



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