Procrastination station is the Apple store at lunchtime. People wander in, here at the branch in Pentagon City, and drift to the iPhone 4. They lovingly caress the iPhone 4. They run their fingers over it. They peer closer.
They pause. Oh no! There are smudges on the iPhone! It is fingerprinty.
They debate. The iPhone4 is Apple’s newest iPhone, but will it be for long? For long enough?
Products are endlessly upgraded. Everything new seems to be just around the corner. Everything that is not new is declared old, and on the verge of obsolescence. Everyone who is caught between waiting for something new or buying something almost-old is stuck in a limbo of 4G anxiety.
A woman in yoga pants approaches an Apple employee near the “Genius Bar” and explains her plight. She has finally been released from imprisonment in a contract with another company that banished her to a technological backwater of Draconian texting abilities and sadness.
“They said they could upgrade me to another phone, but I wonder if I do this instead, if I get the iPhone 4, and if I have a contract with you guys, then will the iPhone 5 . . .”
She listens carefully to the employee’s response. When he leaves, she takes her old phone out of her purse. It looks clunky and belligerent. It has a piece of duct tape on it.
Modern humans of the Western variety have always been taught to wait for The One. But what are you supposed to do in a world where there is always a Next One waiting, and One More after that?
* * *
Rumor: Google will release a new Android system soon, nicknamed the Ice Cream Sandwich.
Rumor: Xbox will release the 720 in 2012, and the PlayStation 4 is underway.
Rumor: Glasses-free 3-D TV is about to get real.
These rumors are driven by zealous tech bloggers and consumers who specialize in speculation. Companies vigilantly guard their release dates, much like prospective romantic partners who say, “Let’s hang out,” but refuse to specify when. Consumers are left trying to interpret signals, read signs, dig through metaphorical trash bins outside our beloved’s apartment for evidence and wonder when we got so crazy.
Let us call an expert.
“The iPhone is the biggest example” of this kind of anxiety, says Scott Ard, the editor of technology product review site CNet.com. “If you’re into the iPhone, then you know that a new version has come out every June.”
And the issue now is?
“The iPhone is off its cycle.”
It is now September. There is no new iPhone. There have been rumors of the new iPhone: that Apple will announce the fifth generation on Sept. 5 or maybe Sept. 7. That Apple employees have been asked not to take vacations for that block of time. Apple did not return phone calls and e-mails requesting comment. It is trying to torture you. (And Steve Jobs just stepped down! What does that mean for your personal technology purchasing?)
CNet surveys reveal that the typical consumer spends three to six months researching a large technological purchase, Ard says. What this means, in an era of speeding technology, is that you could conceivably begin your research just after a new product arrives, then complete your research just in time for an even newer product to arrive.
At which point you will have to go back to the beginning. The Sisyphus of Radio Shack.
Jimmy Pautz wants to buy a Kindle. He has been saving his money. He has excessively researched it, cross-checking its specs with the Nook and other e-readers. He borrowed a friend’s to get the feel. He knows everything there is to know about Kindles. They have mind-melded. They are one. “Now I am finally ready to commit,” says Pautz, a recent college graduate. “But if they’re going to announce a new one . . .”
It could come as soon as October, he has heard. People have been reading the signs: Amazon has slashed the price of the Kindle 3. The last version came out in August 2010. Mercury is in retrograde and Amazon has registered the evocative domain name KindleScribe.com, and it all has to mean something, doesn’t it?
“It would make sense,” says Pautz, who is currently reading books through a patched-together work-around involving his Nintendo DS. Wouldn’t it make sense, he asks, for the new Kindle to come out soon?
* * *
Scene: A couple stands in front of the flat-screen televisions in a Best Buy in Arlington. They are trying to decide whether to get a new television. They are looking at the Sony LED NX720. It has 3-D capabilities. It is a few months old. The man is in love.
Woman: “I still think they’re going to get better.”
Man: “I don’t know, babe. It’s here now. We’re here now.”
Woman (stubbornly): “It will get better.”
Man: “But . . . ‘Avatar.’ ”
* * *
Sociologists have lots of ways of looking at this issue. They call it “analysis paralysis” — the process by which consumers are too overwhelmed with choices to move forward. In one pre-Aesop fable, “The Fox and the Cat,” the cat brags that he has a hundred escape routes, while the fox knows only one. When a hound comes, the fox takes his known path, but the cat is paralyzed, then eaten.
“Analysis paralysis” might be related to “self-illusory hedonism,” another sociological term, this one describing the condition whereby consumers are tricked into believing that an object will make them happy. Or it might be related to “planned obsolescence and enchantment,” by which companies make something seem magical one month and tired the next.
It’s “the march of science,” writes Nathan Jurgenson via e-mail. Jurgenson is a sociologist at the University of Maryland who studies the intersection of capitalism and social media. “Forward, forward . . . smaller, faster, thinner, lighter,” each new generation of technology convincing consumers that the next thing will be the thing they want, the thing they need, the thing that will complete them.
“Devices aren’t just devices, they’re extensions of ourselves that we use to store our memories,” says Amber Case, a “cyborg anthropologist” in Portland, Ore., who studies the relationship between human beings and technology. These devices, she argues, are affecting the way our brains function. “We’re not storing memories as much as we’re remembering what key word it takes to get to that e-mail, or to that Google hit.”
If this is the case, then caring about things such as speed and performance isn’t frivolous, but rather something tied into our own feelings of self-worth. The technology we buy becomes not only the way we present ourselves to the world, but also the way we move through it. Purchase something when it’s new, and you can rest easy, at least for a little while. You are, as Oprah would say, “living your best life.” But wait too long, and worry sets in. If you buy now, are you really living your best life? Or is your best life waiting for you just around the corner, in Apple’s fall product line?
“It’s like shopping for a better brain,” Case says. “Do you want to buy the brain that might be outdated? Or do you want to wait for the newest model?”
* * *
That is what sociologists say.
But sociologists have not sat with you, alone in your living room, as you tend to a sick laptop whose screen inexplicably turns purple and makes a deep grunting sound. They have not seen as you patiently turn this laptop on and off, trying to make it work, thinking, I’ve given all I can. But I think it’s time to start seeing other products.
Maybe it’s not about the march of science at all. Maybe it’s about the march of romance. Maybe we are afraid that if we settle now, we’ll truly fall in love later. If it were just about the technology, after all, then people — at least people who could afford to — would upgrade every time there was an upgrade. But instead, we wait. We are shrewd. We try to show prudence and restraint, while still allowing enough room in our hearts to believe that there really is something better around the corner.
“I’ve realized that I’m in college now” and finally need a smartphone to keep up with scheduling and assignments, says Kelly Kenny, an American University student whose current phone is a generic Samsung that she has owned for several years. She and the Samsung had a fulfilling relationship, until she found herself at Reagan National when she was supposed to be at Dulles and didn’t have a way to get the right information.
After several months of trying to decide whether to buy the Android 3G now or wait indefinitely for the 4G to be announced, Kenny has arrived at an unorthodox choice: She will wait for the new one. But when it comes out, she will buy the old one anyway and nab a good phone for a likely reduced price. She is comfortable with her decision. “It’s not worth it,” she says, to keep worrying.
Next to her, friend Niya Panamdanam nods supportively, hesitating before interjecting anything that might disrupt the profound tranquillity of the moment.
“But if you look at the new one,” she says. “It is so pretty.”