Upgrade Me:
Are We Getting Better, Or Just Newer?

A confession: a couple of Wednesdays ago, I brought my laptop to work with me for one purpose – to download the latest iPhone update. Apple issued an upgrade to its iPhone software that day, which added such long-awaited features as Copy, Cut and Paste, Spotlight search, multimedia messaging, and a plethora of other add-ons to the already excellent operating system.

(Yes, this is going to be a nerdy article.)

The iPhone 3.0 software got me thinking about the way we twenty-first century dwellers have become obsessed with the concept of upgrading. Think about it: the upgrade, though always associated with the computer, was a phenomenon that was once only available every few years or so. I remember very clearly the excitement my dad felt at the introduction of Windows 95 or the dawn of the Pentium chip. But both of these upgrades required a purchase: a new piece of software, or new hardware.

But today, the upgrade isn’t necessarily something we do as much as something that happens to us. Open up your web browser (assuming, and hoping, it’s Firefox), and every so often you will get a message that a new version is ready for download. Sometimes this new version carries with it features that will change the way you work, like tabbed browsing, and other times it simply has security patches that you didn’t know you needed.

Or, for instance, if somehow you didn’t know the iPhone was going to be upgraded on June 17, you may have plugged in on Wednesday to drop some new music on your handset and found a new version of the software, with a plethora of new features waiting for you, and for the low price of just fifteen minutes of waiting.

But constant updating is seen in a much more common place, as well. Think about any of the websites you visit on a regular basis. You likely check sites weekly or daily because the content will be fresh. The site will be updated. As a web developer, I am drawn to the ease of updating this medium. I know that if I make a mistake, or if the information I’ve transmitted becomes out of date, I can simply make a change, upload it, and refresh, and I will have fixed the problem.

I think upgrading is great. I upgrade as often as possible: phone software, websites, computer hardware, anything. But I’m very much aware that something important is lost in all of this frenzied upgrading – namely, permanence.

For instance: consider that website you visit frequently. Imagine that the design has changed, but you really liked the way it looked before. Too bad – it’s gone now. This certainly has been evident in the many new iterations of Facebook that have been released in the last few years. Every time that social networking site updates their look or the way certain features work, a group (the existence of which was, of course, an added feature to their previous platform) is created decrying the new look and feel.

We, as humans, long for change, for the chance to better ourselves and our surroundings and yet, almost as vehemently, we mourn the loss of what we had. Take for example, the graphic designer who decided to print out 437 “featured” Wikipedia articles, producing a book 5,000 pages long and 19 inches thick, to “make a comment on how everyone goes to the internet these days for information, yet it is very unreliable compared to what it has replaced.” No one, not even this “artist,” is even sure what is being replaced, but we’re sure we’ll miss it – that is, if we take the time to think about it long enough.

But do we pause to miss those lost things, or do we press on, ever eager to keep up with the next best thing? It seems that since the beginning of the modern era the pattern has been such that younger generations rush forward, making leaps and bounds that improve the human condition in the face of great concern from the older generations that hold to tradition as supreme. And then, eventually, that once-younger generation, in the face of the improvements of their progeny, hold fast to their once new and now old ways, decrying the infringement on tradition by the younger generation.

But this may not be the case any longer. I mentioned that my father eagerly anticipated the release of the newest version of Windows back in 1995. In truth, he was eager to see Windows 3.0 before that and XP years later. And I was right there with him. My dad got an iPhone before I did, and when he could no longer wait for the next iteration of the phone’s software, he jailbroke it so he could upgrade as often as he cared to. I’ve always been a step behind my father on the technological curve, so clearly I cannot remember him ever decrying the way things used to be. Who cares about tradition when there are new features to be had?

I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about this. Should we celebrate our ability to update ourselves, now that even our elders enjoy the benefits of perpetual upgrade? Or have we lost something? Was there something about tradition, about permanence, that we will miss when it is gone, swept aside to make room for whatever’s next? Or, is this silly to worry about? Have we built into our upgrades legacy versions, ways to document and even eternalize the past?

I’m torn. As I sit writing this, I’m surrounded by shelves overflowing with books and more books in piles on every visible surface. I love books. But at the same time, I’m listening to music that is playing through my computer. The shelves of compact discs, which replaced my parents’ shelves of vinyl records, are no more. They have been digitized, saved, and transferred, and they live on this computer and three backup hard drives. They will come with me into the future, but they no longer physically exist.

I don’t own a Kindle. I’m not ready to convert my bookshelves into gigabytes – but why not? A practical consideration, maybe. Perhaps I really feel like e-book technology hasn’t quite arrived. But most likely, in the not too distant future, I will wonder what took me so long to succumb to the inevitable.

Not long ago I downloaded the Kindle application for my iPhone. Since its initial release it has been upgraded to make for a more pleasant reading experience. It’s still not a book. I’m still not a convinced. But a few more updates, and who knows?