The hi-tech refuseniks
Phones and TVs are 'obsolete' the moment they hit the shops, to tempt us with newer models. But now consumers are fighting back. Nick Harding reports
Wednesday 16 September 2009
Once upon a time, Radio Rentals was the way the average person could afford their electronic entertainment. Nothing quite encapsulates just how slow progress used to be than the fact that three decades ago it was prudent to hire your TV and hi-fi on a long-term contract from a middle man. Technology crawled along at such a leisurely pace there was rarely a reason to update.
Today, unlike the tortoises of old which would lumber on for years, modern-day digital appliances are mayflies; beautiful but fleeting, useful for a few months before they outlive their purpose and wither away. Radio Rentals has gone the same way as Betamax and Minidisc players; outmoded and unwanted. Technology moves at a breakneck pace and to stay on-trend, consumers need regular trips to PC World and plenty of plastic. Keeping pace with progress is a struggle.
Take the iPhone, Apple's fastest-growing product with over 26 million units sold worldwide. When it launched two years ago, commuter trains were full of smug early adopters, brandishing their cutting-edge kit. A year later, when the iPhone 3G launched, they queued to update. In June this year, the smug looks were wearing thin when the 3GS launched and 3G owners wanting to upgrade were faced with the prospect of having to pay to get out of their contracts. Cue delicious schadenfreude in the Nokia and Samsung community, but in Appleland it has not gone down so well, with iPhone owners venting on Twitter and launching petitions demanding 'a reasonable way to upgrade'. And it happens in all consumer categories. Just splashed out on a new state-of-the-art flat-screen TV? Too bad. In a few years 3D will be the gold standard. As the tech-savvy clamour to stay on the merry-go-round, there is a new voice rising above the "upgrade, upgrade" mantra. It says "make do, make do" and comes from a consumer group traditionally labelled "technology laggards", or "late adopters"; people who refuse to update.
These refuseniks question the logic of struggling to stay state of the art. Much to the chagrin of the technology industry, these revolutionaries are proudly using old devices and refusing to replace them with newer models. At the forefront of this growing movement is the website Lastyearsmodel.org, which encourages people to think before they upgrade and to get the most out of their existing technology. Devotees post details of the kit they use and what they use it for. Site creator Anil Dash explains: "The idea is to fix the false impression that the newest gadgets are the only interesting ones by promoting the fact that we're getting a lot out of our existing products. "One of the most interesting things is that while so much of the talk in tech circles is about the latest and greatest, even alpha geeks often don't run out and buy the newest gadgets and electronics the minute they come out. But you wouldn't know it from the way we talk about gadgetry.
"There's an incessant focus on what's just been released on the market, or what's becoming available in the future. It makes even those of us who have great, fancy, expensive devices feel we are slipping behind. The constant pursuit of novelty over actual value takes a lot of the joy out of loving great technology," he says. "Being thoughtful about our consumption is good for the planet but it's just as important to me that we really think about what we're doing with these tools and toys."
Of course the environmental implication of the incessant urge to update cannot be understated. The amount of waste electrical equipment we throw away is growing by five per cent a year, the fastest waste stream in the UK. Thanks to Lastyears model, Dash's message has gone global and has encouraged a global community of late adopers. Site member Derek Miller from Canada boasts: "The newest computer in our house is over three years old, and the one that runs our iTunes library is about eight. My digital camera is a Nikon D50 that was discontinued in 2006, while one of the lenses I use with it is 20 years old. My iPod Touch is first-generation, and my wife's iPod is from 2005. Our cars are aged five and eight. The digital piano is six. We still own nothing but CRT televisions, and my stereo receiver is from 1993."
Fellow laggard Andy Baio posts: "I can appreciate new tech, but I tend to wait as long as I can before upgrading, pushing whatever performance I can out of my ageing hardware. We still use a heavy tube standard-definition TV, an old TiVo, an early model Flip and a five-year-old Digital Rebel. My PC desktop is five years old and a perfect media server, so when something breaks, I just keep fixing it. I still use and love my Nintendo DS and have no plans to upgrade to the DSi."
In Indonesia, Abram Tan proudly owns and utilises a 1983 Tehnics HiFi that belonged to his father, a 2001 DigiTech RP300 guitar effects processor, a 2005 Sony DCS-T1 digital camera, a 2005 30Gb iPod, a 2006 O2 XDA and a 2007 MacBook 2. He explains: "These old technologies serve their purpose well and I feel I still haven't even come close to utilising them to their maximum potential. Why should we buy something new when the old one still does its job well?" He maintains that you don't need to be technically minded to fix older gadgets. "With my HiFi, if it's broken, I'll just open it up, find the culprit, do some soldering, and it will work again. It's just plain old cables, resistors, capacitors, small transistors. No chips, no flexible cables. The parts are everywhere and older gadgets seemed to be made from better materials in general."
Refuseniks without know-how can now turn to online guides for digital DIY advice. Ifixit.com includes step-by-step guides on projects like replacing iPod hard drives, disassembling PS3 Slims and installing new logic boards in MacBooks.
In 1962 when communications scholar Everett M Rogers coined the term "technology laggard", he was describing a group of consumers labelled "near isolates", "suspicious of innovations and of change agents", who were largely poor and less intelligent. Today's refuseniks no longer fit the disadvantaged Luddite stereotype. Most are educated, informed and choose to take their stance as a matter of principle. And their voice is increasingly heard. "Laggards have a bad reputation, but they are crucial in pacing the nature of change," says technology forecaster Paul Saffo.
The laggards forced the UK government to extend its planned digital TV roll-out. When it became apparent huge numbers of people were refusing to buy set-top boxes to receive DTV, Tessa Jowell labelled them "a hardcore of refuseniks", conjuring up an image of active political dissidence. However, research found the DTV laggards simply found set-top boxes too difficult to use. Subsequently the Government was forced to lobby manufacturers to improve design.
Sometimes technology places unforeseen constraints on its own uptake. When Firefox developers tried to find out why some users were resistant to updating from version two to version three, they found a quarter of late adopters were concerned because the new system highlighted bookmarks, allowing other people using the hardware to see which websites had been visited; embarrassing if you'd been delving into the net's murkier corners.
Often, late adopters are happy with what they already own. Last year, when AOL announced it would no longer support the 15-year-old browser Netscape, the programme still had a hardcore of over one million loyal users who resisted updating. For the same reason, dial-up continues to be a big market despite the availability of Broadband, and the Well, a simple text-based email exchange launched in 1985, still has a cult following. As Well user David Gans explained: "Every other online conversational space has a toolbar where you can plug in your favourite winking face. But just because you can have a nuclear-powered thing that can dry your clothes in five minutes doesn't mean there isn't value to hanging your clothes in the backyard and talking to your neighbour while doing it."
Old and new technology can work in harmony. The oldest working television set, a 1936 Marconiphone owned by an antiques collector in London, is connected to a Freeview box so viewers can enjoy reruns of Top Gear on Dave on its grainy black and white screen. And even if it no longer functions, an appliance can still hold value. There is a thriving market in defunct iconic appliances. The first mobile phones fetch up to £3,000 on the collectors market. So maybe it's better to keep your 3GS in its box, save yourself the pain of having to upgrade again and reap the rewards in 30 years time.
How to get the most from old technology
* Use peripherals. Expand the functions of old computers with external hardware like CD writers and webcams – it's cheaper than buying a whole new PC.
* Keep it clean. Just keep the bare essentials on your hard drive and save everything else like music and photos on an external drive.
* Look after it. Use it for what it was meant for, keep it in good condition and it should last.
* Shop around for spares. Websites like eBay are full cheap components.
* Find a man who can. It's not unusual to take a broken piece of kit into a High Street chain and be told that it's beyond repair. Look for independent technicians who will be much more inclined to try and fix the problem.
* Have patience. Things move slower at the blunt end of the cutting edge.
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