Left for dead

John Herrman writes in The New York Times about the experience of watching his 2012 iPad age. Over time, it’s acquired hardly a scratch, resembling nearly identically the device he brought out of its packaging five years ago. And yet with each passing year, each iOS and app update, it’s become nearly useless, “as though it has been abandoned from on high, cut loose from the cloud on which it depends.” Herrman points out that a never-before-opened iPad of the same model would be no more functional than his. It would only point more directly at the curious nature of these devices:

Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.

I’ve been using the same iPhone 5S for four years now. Like Herrman says, the longer you possess such a device, the more you notice it. It hangs when opening apps. The battery lasts maybe half a day now. I am continuously deleting old photos to clear a space for a few more. It became eligible for an upgrade from my carrier two years ago; not much later, its trade-in value hit zero. With my typical stubbornness, I’ve vowed to continue using it until it won’t turn on anymore. But how many of us have ever seen an iPhone or iPad actually die of old age? Unless their lives are cut short by some accident, we nearly always replace them long before they enter an eternal sleep. Just as soon they inconvenience us with their age, or maybe as soon as we’re done paying them off.

Herrman describes how over time, such a device acquires no physical artifacts of its age or utility. It has no patina, no timeworn imprint of the hands that held it or the fingers the swiped, pinched, and tapped its surface. “[I]t’s the exact opposite of a baseball mitt in its resistance to sentiment and nostalgia,” he writes.

It’s only a matter of time before I, too, move on from this graying contraption. And what little sentiment I will feel for its nearly pristine shell. What will its luxurious golden backing matter then? What of its laser-cut, sapphire-covered, fingerprint-identifying Home button? Long ago, I ditched the phone’s case, wishing to enjoy, as few get to, the feel of the naked object in my hand. I still love its weight, its compactness, and its nearly square edges, abandoned in every model since for smooth curves. But I can only do so with the peace of mind that should anything happen, I will just replace it. Its sole value — its bond to the digital beyond — is already tenuous, and diminishing every day. The preciousness of this object is immaterial, or material only in terms of the way a cracked screen would close the portal. (But then you have a warranty. Or insurance.)

For all their precious metals, implausible technologies, and preposterous price tags, could these devices be anything but disposable? Can we even conceive of an heirloom smartphone? A tablet that rewarded its owner’s small, loyal acts of care year after year? We’re not far beyond the years when you could open your computer and replace components that had become worn out or outdated. But even that is a distant cry from one’s grandparents’ chest of drawers or father’s leather boots. With digital devices, we are always battling obsolescence, and we are always losing.