The tyranny of the upgrade

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The Independent Tech

It's quite a long time ago now, but I still remember buying my first mobile phone as if it were yesterday. The Nokia 3210, my first love, the dinky little handset that seemed to promise my spotty adolescent self an infinite vista of possibility, the object that meant that if a girl ever actually agreed to give me her number I would have somewhere to put it: the speed dial to independence, the ringtone of the future, the predictive text message from a new world. It had an LCD screen. It was tiny. It was portable. You could play Snake on it.

I look at it now, my battered old brick, with its missing hash key and its enormous battery held in by Sellotape, and I wonder what I ever saw in it. This dog-eared thing once seemed like the acme of human achievement, the final step in our inexorable march towards being characters from a science-fiction movie. Now I compare it to my iPhone – mobile number seven in an entirely ordinary telephonic evolution – and I feel a bit embarrassed, like one of those creepy old rich guys who trades in their loyal wife of 30 years for a bouncy 21-year-old, looks at the wedding photo and looks across the living room and can't square the two visions. Please don't ask me what I see in her, darling Nokia. You and me, we had a good run, but she comes with integrated GPS maps, for goodness sake. I'm not a saint. Also, when did you get so huge?

The latest technological iteration does not make my iPhone look any bigger, but it's a sickener nonetheless. For the iPad isn't just a new version of something familiar. It hasn't just superseded a laptop or a games console or a 27-blade motorised razor. It's a whole new category of technology to be anxious about.

That makes it understandable why so many people queued around the block to get their hands on one when it arrived in Britain this week. But it also leaves me infuriated. I don't need one of these things, and I certainly can't afford one; I don't even particularly want one. And yet when I saw an iPad at close quarters for the first time on Friday, I immediately felt that despicable longing somewhere in my gut, that hint of panic about the world moving on and me not going with it. (I know, I know: people are starving.) They say the iPad seems inessential until you get one, after all. Hadn't I better try to forget how I'm managing to live without it?

The wise gizmo-pervert will, of course, wait until the next generation appears: the first version of such gadgets – Apple ones in particular – are notoriously buggy, and only the foolish and the limitlessly wealthy will ignore the fact that it will probably be cheaper and work better in six months' time. But even that sliver of good sense that slips into my assessment can quickly be chased out by the tyranny of the upgrade. Because, after all, the evil technological angel whispers in my ear, six months after that another version will be available, slightly snazzier and shinier than the last. And then the same thing will happen six months after that. And if I follow the wait-till-the-next-one logic to its conclusion, I won't be able to get my hands on anything swish until Microsoft makes the Doomsday device available for general sale shortly before the end of the world.

This kind of status anxiety is nothing new, of course. Presumably the 19th-century equivalent of Stephen Fry was constantly showing off about the extraordinary capacities of his carrier pigeon; perhaps in 3000BC, the guy who got his hands on the first abacus made all the other Sumerians feel like hopeless Luddites. (Admittedly, with the actual Luddites not turning up until 1811, even that thought would have made them pretty advanced.)

Still, there's no doubt that computerisation has made it dramatically worse. No technology has advanced at such a pace in the history of mankind; until the internet existed, if you bought something amazing you could at least rest assured that it wouldn't tell you that it needed an overhaul when you were using it. In the very writing of this article my laptop froze for 30 seconds before presenting me with a list of programs that its integrated AutoUpdate service thought needed a fresh lick of paint.

I clicked cancel, as I nearly always do, out of a faintly militant sense that it's working fine, thanks very much, and who are you to tell me what to do, you great hunk of circuit boards? Imagine if your trousers told you they had a hole in them! Imagine if your house pointed out that you should be moving up the property ladder! Imagine if your hair demanded to be cut!

Scoff if you like, but the crazed expansionism of Steve Jobs makes me almost certain that all three will be possible by the end of the year. At that point, when my barnet is whispering in my ear that it's time for a trip to the barber, or at least a shampoo, I will shave my head, take off all my clothes and trade in my flat for a cave. At the same time, I might bin the iPhone and return to my dear old Nokia. All right, it can only make calls. But that's more than the sodding iPad can manage.