How I (Continually Have To) Tame the Apple Upgrade Monkey

© Apple Inc.

I admit it. Every time Apple trots out a new laptop or phone my heart starts racing a little bit. In anticipation, in desire, in pavlovian geeky need, my consumer monkey brain starts firing like nobody's business. "You want it. Nay. You neeeeeed it," it whispers, then shouts. It's not quite a Gollum-esque need of The Precious, but for a few minutes, it's pretty close. Every time. I know this now.

Yesterday, with the announcement of a slimmer! faster! brighter! higher resolution! quicker starting quieter running flash memory toting! new MacBook Pro, not to mention some not insignificantly refreshed MacBook Airs, my swinging from branch to branch and back again monkey brain went into overdrive.

Even though I currently own a MacBook Pro that's just about two years old, and an 11" MacBook Air purchased within minutes of the original iteration being announced, and an aging 13" MacBook (the black one, which serves as our television, hooked up to an old 23" Cinema Display and hard drive array), even though I have an abundance of perfectly serviceable computing power there was something in me that considered, for a moment, "Maybe I do need to upgrade the MBP."

Now, to be fair, these computers are jointly owned by my wife and I, with the black MacBook pre-dating not only our marriage but also our prenuptial co-habitation. In practice, the MacBook sits attached to the Cinema Display more or less permanently, while the two more recent machines get used by both of us more or less equally for personal use, and all by me professionally. The MacBook Air has been dubbed 'Baby Mac' and is our default travel laptop (serving for my needs much better than an iPad).

In another point of fairness, that professional use is extensive and constant. It puts a higher-than-average toll on the machine, without a doubt. I wear out keys (sometimes through them, no joke), burnish edges, and loosen screen hinges, well before the statistically average Apple customer. Not to mention going through power adapters at a rate that has me wondering if some sort of class action lawsuit isn't appropriate. All of this is done with a craftsman's care of tools as well. I baby my equipment to the greatest degree possible considering how much I use it, and without overly worrying about it.

Which is all to say, it's not just my monkey brain wanting to upgrade each time a new laptop is announced, but a small measure of genuine, rational, assessment of the state of my gear plays into it. And which then promptly gets overridden by the monkey tugging at my pant leg for another banana, before it starts climbing up towards my hands to get one (a story both true and symbolic... it was fun).

Mat McDermott/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Let's face it, despite countless posts on TreeHugger and every other green site out there lamenting the rapid pace of gadget refresh and how wouldn't it be great if our computer technology was designed to last a lifetime (it would be...), that's not happening any time soon. Upgrades are a fact of early 21st century technological life for laptops, phones, cameras, you name it.

So how do I tame the monkey brain and talk myself out of upgrading more than I actually have to?

Here's the prime question I ask myself (with all due respect to Satish Kumar for this paraphrasing):

If I've lived up to now without this product, do I really need it? Or in the case of upgrading a laptop, if I've lived and worked with my current laptop up to now and have been satisfied, do I really need the new features the latest version offers?

With the new MacBook Pro, is the small weight savings of the new model really worth the upgrade? Is the Retina Display, alone, really worth upgrading? The new flash drive? All are worthy things, a definite progression of technology that I'll appreciate at some point, but on their own not reasons to upgrade a laptop purchased in the past 3-4 years, a machine that is likely otherwise working just fine.

It sounds simple and is, really, but its also very easy to forget:

Upgrade your laptop, your phone, your camera when you need to—when you have a functional, definite, need to—not because you simply want to, are distracted by all the shiny aluminum and all those extra pixels, and Apple (or whoever) is not so subtly suggesting that everything they made before is now hopelessly obsolete and what they're now making is the key to all gadgety happiness.

Happiness isn't a new laptop. Better communication isn't a new phone. Better photographs are not a new camera. All are in you, not the technology.

Now, you very well may determine that you need to upgrade, having made that determination based on your needs and not the manufacturer's desires. In which case, make sure you dispose of the old tech properly. That is repurpose it, sell it to someone with different needs than yours, donate it to a needy local non-profit (tax deduction...), and only if the to-be-upgraded machine is really beyond its functional life, only then recycle it. For love of Gaia and Steve Jobs, never just throw out an old Mac.

Tags: Apple Inc | Consumerism | Gadgets | longreads

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