Planned Obsolescence

1.

One Saturday night in fall 2018, I was initiated into a satire publication that had recently accepted me as a staff writer. The initiation involved moving through a series of themed rooms staffed by current members. The theme was different kinds of assholes based on areas of study. There was a room full of theory bros (social sciences), a room full of brogrammers (applied STEM), and a room full of arthouse film snobs (humanities). Everyone congregated in one last room for the final party, where the initiates were branded in paint with a black “V” on their foreheads and officially inducted. I was originally unenthused about the whole thing, as it is gauche to care about things after one’s freshman year. You, a current member, had also told me that you weren’t initially planning on going.

You were a brogrammer; you wore a Facebook vest and a Facebook hat and, I would later discover, Facebook socks. You introduced yourself to everyone as a postdoc at MIT. I introduced myself as a freshman who missed her high school boyfriend in order to ingratiate myself with my youthful peers. What initially made you attractive to me was that you weren’t a freshman boy and that you seemed attainable.

“Facebook last summer, huh?” I yelled at you over the noise of the final party.

“Yeah,” you said.

“I was rejected from Facebook,” I said, in a way that came off as deranged and bitter (but was meant to be flirtatious). From seeing male teaching assistants for computer science courses melt in the hands of girls who sexualized their confusion to obtain homework answers at office hours, I bet that the best way forward was to emphasize my incompetence. Strategic as I was, you didn’t make a move until a few hours later: you expressed regret that I was a freshman and had a boyfriend. I told you it was a bit: that I was a junior, single. You made a big deal about calling me a liar. I defensively turned out my pockets to find my college ID card stamped with my upperclassman house affiliation, before I realized that you, too, were joking. We were always joking (when you shared with me a perfect imitation of a celebrated statistics professor’s nasal monotone, I kissed you in delight, and you made a face and said, “Is Joe Blitzstein arousing?”)

When we left the party, a whole four hours later than we might have, I told you that I was beginning to think you weren’t interested in women. You smirked, “Then, would I do this,” and kissed me for the first time. But then you pulled away with the slightest note of worry in your expression.

“I should tell you something now,” you said. “I’m in an open relationship.”

Presumptuous to assume I’d care, I thought. You were a second semester senior; you’d be leaving campus in a month. Likely I’d never see you again.

“Sure,” I said. We went on our way.

2.

It’s the stuff of Silicon Valley lore that Steve Jobs leased a brand-new Mercedes-Benz twice a year. A loophole in the California DMV regulations allowed him to circumvent ever registering his vehicle by replacing it within the six-month grace period. Jobs hated the look of license plates. The loophole has since been closed. In the Valley, this story is regarded with amusement (and perhaps a bit of admiration). It’s proof of Jobs’s ingenuity, his devil-may-care attitude, and devotion to his brand of exacting minimalism, in every regard except for the financial. Silicon Valley is not known for its frugality. The Instagram account @siliconvalleyprobs, popular amongst local high schoolers, shows teenagers half-jokingly using their iPhones as curling stones, MacBooks as cutting boards, Apple Pencils as chopsticks. Another legend: Jobs used the first iPod as a fish tank accessory. He dropped the prototype into an aquarium for not meeting his standards.

The shelf life of an iPhone is about three years, one year longer than the length of a standard mobile phone contract. But just about everyone who’s ever owned an iPhone knows that even with careful treatment its retina display is prone to shatter; its battery more fickle than the child support checks Jobs reluctantly and occasionally sent to Chrisann Brennan.

The corporation came under fire in 2018 for slowing down the performance of older phones with successive iOS updates. To address sluggish iPhone sales, Apple is now encouraging users to sign up for the iPhone Upgrade Program: a subscription that guarantees you the newest iPhone every year for the best deal, provided you never leave the program by choosing to buy out your phone instead. Apple’s decided to tap into their consumers’ desires for the next big thing, switching to a business model that reframes the short lifespan of its products as a selling point. It is possible to have something for such a short period of time that one can afford to be careless and still might never see it break before it’s traded away.

It is also well-documented how Jobs discarded a prototype of his ideal family. He denied his paternity of Lisa Brennan-Jobs until a legal case compelled him otherwise. Brennan-Jobs was excluded from his new family. In her memoir Small Fry, she recalls a moment at her younger sister Eve’s birthday party. “She was daddy’s mistake,” says Eve to her friend. For years, Jobs refused to acknowledge that the Apple Lisa was named after his daughter.

3.

I had no reason to be opposed to being involved with someone in a relationship, as long as your girlfriend was consenting. I didn’t easily get attached. I broke up with my high school boyfriend only a week and a half after moving to Cambridge. I sent him a “we need to talk” via Facebook Messenger, lowliest of all mediums of communication, on the walk back from the First Chance Dance (a school-sanctioned tradition intended to bring down the “67% of freshmen are virgins” statistic Harvard is routinely mocked for in major news outlets). Going long distance meant acknowledging the legitimacy of our relationship. What a Jobsian thing to do: to keep something right up until the moment you might start to get attached, and throw it away the moment you’re forced to put a label on it.

“You’ve been thinking about this for a while, right,” he messaged me back. I pretended to answer this question thoughtfully. “For about twelve hours,” I lied. Maybe he was thinking about the multiple times he suggested that we visit each other during the school year, and how I had never bought a plane ticket to solidify my commitment.

“Come to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving,” he said.

“I might have plans for Thanksgiving,” I said. “I’m seeing friends in New York.” (It was June).

Two months later, he asked again. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” he asked.

“Haven’t made plans,” I said.

“I’ve heard of this really cool place called Carnegie Mellon University,” he said.

“Ugh, Pittsburgh, I hate it,” I said. (I had never been).

Imagine a CEO — let’s call him Steve — is trying to hire a secretary thick-skinned and nimble enough to dodge the gadgets he routinely hurls at the wall. The candidates are to be interviewed one by one in random succession. After each interview Steve must make a decision immediately. He has enough information to rank the candidate amongst the candidates already interviewed, but cannot assume the quality of candidates yet unseen. The secretary problem is an application of optimal stopping theory. The solution: if there are n candidates to fill a position, you should reject outright the first n / e of them (where e is the base of the natural logarithm, about 2.7). Choose the next candidate that is better than all the previous candidates after the first n / e. Even then, the success probability of choosing the best candidate is still only 1 / e. In no world is it rational to select the first person.

4.

The only thing that screams Silicon Valley more than living in San Francisco for 15 years is writing a Medium post about leaving San Francisco to become a “digital nomad”; Chris Messina has done both of these things. Messina is an open source advocate and tech evangelist who names Google and Uber as former employers.

Open source software is freely distributed software with its source code available for modification, shared intellectual property among its developers. The invention of version control software precipitated the rise of open source projects. GitHub, a software hosting website built around Git, now houses the largest collection of open source software in the world. Every repository hosted on GitHub has a master branch (“master”) containing stable production code ready to be deployed. People create new feature branches to make bug fixes and improvements before merging their branches back into master if the changes are approved by other developers. It’s unwise to directly modify master for fear of causing noticeable damage. This is the safe way to code. At the end of the day, the master branch is the only one that matters — if a feature branch falls off a tree in a forest it doesn’t make a sound.

Messina is well known for inventing the hashtag as it is used on social media platforms (and notably refusing to patent his invention), and moderately known for having the peculiarities of his Silicon Valley love life featured online. In 2015, he wrote a column for CNN Money as part of an extended feature on Silicon Valley entitled "Why I choose non-monogamy.” Messina buffers his argument with a historical approach. Monogamy made sense when potential mates were in limited supply, but the advent of mobile technology has allowed dating pools to proliferate, precipitating a rising ambivalence towards commitment.

In his own words, Messina writes, “As a child of divorce and an aspiring designer-entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I was suspicious of marriage. Out here, we're data-positive and solution-oriented and if your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50% of your customers, then you need to fix it or offer something better. So when I discovered polyamory and non-monogamy as I headed to Burning Man in 2013, I realized I'd stumbled onto another way.” Messina made himself open-source, available for the taking: I imagine multiple people checking out different versions of him at the same time, sculpting him to their particular liking.

I had a version of you and I would describe it as a version that was funny and lighthearted and clever. You spoke about your girlfriend often and reverently, but you maligned her television recommendations and respected mine. “My girlfriend would never get this,” you said, showing me a sketch by Demetri Martin. We built up a shared repository of inside jokes and impressions and innuendos on a dangling branch that could be broken off cleanly anytime you wanted. Regardless of which television you preferred, you’d watch what your girlfriend wanted you to watch. I deferred to master; I left no trace of myself on you. But you once wrote a piece for the satire publication about an anthropomorphized campus shuttle, and I read it when I thought of you, more times than I care to admit.

5.

James Mickens, associate professor of computer science at Harvard, wrote a series of six humorous articles for USENIX, the Advanced Computing Systems Association that, in his own words, “collectively form a breathtaking magnum opus on science, philosophy, and the reasons why JavaScript is horrible.” This is what he has to say about touchscreens:

Touchscreens are the only commodities which depreciate faster than automobiles. As soon as you unwrap your phone or tablet, the touchscreen starts to die … Phones and tablets apparently require Planck-scale mechanical alignments, such that merely looking at the touchscreen introduces fundamental, quantum dynamical changes in the touchscreen’s dilithium crystals. Thus, if you place your touchscreen on anything, ever, you have made a severe and irreversible life mistake.

A few weeks after I’d sworn to myself I’d never see you again, I let you inside my room, where I had previously refused to allow you, because of the childish but firm notion that if you were the one with the girlfriend, I had to be the one to leave you in the morning and not the other way around. I soon regretted this decision; it didn’t take long at all for you to feel comfortable enough to insult me in my own home. “You have cold hands,” you commented.

“Would you prefer if I didn’t have hands at all?” I said, playing with your fingers. “I wouldn’t be able to code, or play piano, or write my paper on City Lights.”

“I love Charlie Chaplin. My brother and I used to watch Modern Times on repeat when we were kids.”

“Never seen it,” I said. You were so precocious. You once transitioned into Spanish midway through our conversation, attributing your fluency to your Spanish-speaking nanny. How large and worldly you were, with your gap year and Groton and Greenwich and girlfriend.

“Want to watch Modern Times next time?” you asked. Our relationship seemed to be firmly situated along this innocent axis of shared humor and common language, but there were also moments where you folded involuntarily, where the surface quivered as if something had been quietly beating underneath it all along. “I’ve never been with anyone like this,” you said to me, after one achingly intimate moment, and it was not a joke, not at all.

The paper I was working on was about Chaplin’s critical view of sound films and the increasing mechanization of society. Right off the bat, Chaplin begins City Lights by mocking talkies: the first scene of the film depicts a public appearance by local politicians, whose speech is represented by a babble that sounds like the demonic buzz of a low-quality phone call (the sound of a human voice dulled by mechanization). Chaplin found sound films alienating and this mechanization inhumane; the movie City Lights is his ode to universal means of expression: silent film and human touch.

But if the first scene parodies Chaplin’s fatalistic view of sound film, the last scene is his ideal formulation of silent film. The flower girl touches the Tramp in order to offer him a coin. “The opposite of mechanization is human contact,” I wrote. “If ‘static’ is a pun for the sound of the babble and Chaplin’s fear for the future of the film industry, ‘touch’ is a pun for the physical sensation that acts as the driving force of the Tramp’s and the flower girl’s relationship, and the viewer’s emotional reaction upon the conclusion of the film.” As he would verbally formulate later in The Great Dictator, “We think too much, and feel too little.” Chaplin captures the essence of this wordlessly in the final shot of City Lights.

Internally, I was convincing myself that Chaplin was wrong. Touch fell short of his promises. There was no harm in seeing you again and again. The more you touched me, the more desensitized I’d become.

6.

Before Burning Man changed his life, Messina was featured in a 2008 San Francisco Magazine piece, “So Open it Hurts,” by Bernice Yeung about his online, monogamous relationship with his ex-girlfriend Tara Hunt. Perhaps the threesome with the Internet is what paved the way for Messina’s eventual conversion to non-monogamy. The piece was originally meant to be on how the two founded the coworking movement, but what Yeung found much more interesting was the open source ethos that formed the basis for the coworking movement and also wove itself through Messina and Hunt’s relationship.

“In a world not known for its epic romances, ChrisandTara used to be Web 2.0’s version of Brangelina. They lived together, worked at adjoining desks, finished each other’s sentences, guided each other’s dreams,” wrote Yeung. Through a chronological series of blog posts by both Hunt and Messina, the world watched them fall in love with each other, witnessed their first fight, and pieced together the cracks in their relationship that led to their impending breakup (naturally, both of them blogged about Yeung’s piece in response to its publication). Messina and Hunt lived and breathed open source, taking the ideology and neatly porting it from tech to love and back again like they had stumbled upon a clever linear transformation. I have also been guilty of this.

7.

We are lying in my bed when you receive a call from your girlfriend. “I have to take this,” you say. I feel a tacit obligation to remain as quiet as possible, and I hold my breath to inspire stillness. We are so close to each other I can hear her on the line. I have been seeing you for longer than I’ve ever been in a relationship.

“My roommates and I are making dessert pizza,” you tell your girlfriend on the phone. I feel a small twinge of satisfaction for knowing this before she does.

“When should I come over?” she asks.

“I’ll pick you up,” you say. “See you later.”

“Love you,” she says. You don’t say it back. The omission of this obligatory farewell is somehow worse. It feels like a deliberate and unsuccessful attempt at relieving the discomfort of the situation.

When you hang up, I let out a small cough, which becomes a slightly more forceful cough, which blooms into a wet, hacking fit that shakes my entire body. As if my lungs are trying in vain to expel something heavy and foreign sloshing in my chest, as if something is bubbling up to the surface and letting loose an indecipherable secret, and I feel lightheaded and helpless, like I’ve just finished an exam and realized there was a back to it just as the proctor says “Pencils down,” or like I’m a lip balm forgotten inside a jeans pocket and someone has just closed the washer door. I taste something wet and pink and metallic and swallow it back down. Your eyes widen. “That was close,” you say. You are relieved I wasn’t heard.

I would be remiss to ignore the comedy in this scene: the silliest I’ve ever felt. The violence of the cough, the absurdity of the situation: pure slapstick. It was comic genius, not at all on purpose. It was the last scene of City Lights, a close-up of the Tramp’s ridiculous appearance — the blackened eyebrows, exaggerated mustache, pathetically earnest smile. “He is offering up his vulnerability in its totality, and in doing so, inviting the possibility of humiliation,” I wrote. “Feeling cannot occur without the possibility of laughter.” You saw me as saucy, unsentimental: consider the possibility that the two are inseparable, the laughter and the feeling. I made myself a fool in the hopes of earning your affection. There is a perverse kind of comedy to how much I loved you.

8.

Messina argues that economic abundance allowed people like him to make a conscious choice to be non-monogamous because basic needs were being sufficiently met and reproduction was becoming less urgent. “In place of monogamous pairings, hookup culture flourishes and "open relationships" are commonplace. These are merely rational economic responses to excess inventory,” writes Messina. Part of Messina’s argument in favor of non-monogamy is the rise of dating apps, which provide users with a seemingly endless pool of candidates. But these apps have little incentive to see their users in happy, long-term relationships — it would render them obsolete. When you motion to delete your Tinder account, the app prompts you to select a reason; select “I met someone” and a sly popup informs you fatalistically that deleting your account will eliminate all your existing messages and matches. Hide your card from visibility instead, the popup suggests.

Another possible explanation, rather than millions of people making “rational economic responses,” is that this consumptive version of non-monogamy was a choice made for them. Jean Baudrillard’s work, which focused on consumption rather than Marx’s production, expanded upon the idea of reification, the process by which humans become dominated by things and become more thinglike themselves. “The rapturous satisfactions of consumption surround us, clinging to objects as if to the sensory residues of the previous day in the delirious excursion of a dream,” wrote Baudrillard. For Baudrillard, there is no other way but for someone like Messina (and you, and me) to understand potential romantic mates as “excess inventory,” as objects that play by the rules of the dog-eat-dog world of tech, and to treat them as such.

Pessimistic as he was, Baudrillard ended For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign by offering up a solution to the problem of reification that built upon Georges Bataille’s theory of general economy. In The Accursed Share, Bataille wrote, “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy — wealth — without any return.” Bataille’s solar principle of expenditure formed the basis of his theory of general economy: human nature is to spend, give, sacrifice, and destroy, not save and accumulate, as capitalism demands. Baudrillard refashioned this to argue in favor of symbolic exchange as a means of resisting the capitalistic values of production and exchange.

To illustrate symbolic exchange, Baudrillard invoked the potlatch, the ceremonial distribution of gifts and destruction of goods practiced by Native Americans. The more you gave and destroyed, the more you were respected. It was not the creative destruction that forms the basis of capitalism: the tight-lipped acknowledgement that a bit of destruction is necessary for the sake of future accumulation regardless of the human cost. It was the destruction of excess that proved a certain defiance against the power of the object: destruction that did not ask for anything in return. The potlatch was banned by the Canadian government from 1885 to 1951 — the destruction aspect seemed wildly reckless and wasteful. It was at odds with the practice of wealth accumulation they were used to. They figured it could only have been explained by mental instability.

9.

I want to clarify that I do believe in a version of non-monogamy; I only hesitate to use the word “ethical” to describe it because the term is most often slung around by cis het men who make more than $200,000 in a calendar year as staff software engineers at Google and are, frankly, the least likely to be ethical with their non-monogamy. I see how some might believe that monogamy puts people into boxes and treats them like property: a form of love as closely related to capitalism as Messina’s Tinder-sponsored non-monogamy.

Before the tech bros colonized “ethical non-monogamy” with their Wool Runners like they did the entire Bay Area, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy published The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities in 1997. Easton is lesbian and Hardy genderfluid; they are from San Francisco. Hardy originally published the book under a pseudonym for fear of controversy. Today, you can’t spit around here anymore without accidentally spitting on the dick of some Amazon software developer who’s in an open relationship.

Messina’s notion of abundance precipitating non-monogamy stands in contrast to what a queer friend once told me about their relationship. I remember stumbling upon this friend holding a potluck dish in the common area of a Stanford co-op, on their way to have dinner with their partner and their partner’s other partner. “You can’t help but love someone who loves who you love,” they said. There’s a situation where the truthiness of the principle of expenditure is affirmed by communal participation — a group of people, maybe two, maybe more, where everyone gives everything they can but also receives everything they need, bound to each other in a wordless, eternal dance.

My friend said that they couldn’t treat people like test cases because their options were limited to begin with. There’s no other choice but to love everyone you can. Easton and Hardy also challenged the notion that one’s capacity for love and intimacy are finite. Theirs seemed to be the kind that resisted the influence of reification, the kind of non-monogamy that trusted itself to turn scarcity into abundance rather than treat abundance like scarcity.

10.

Suppose there are six cars on the single-lane southbound stretch of Junipero Serra Boulevard between Stanford Avenue and Page Mill Road near Palo Alto, CA — Steve in his Mercedes, and Laurene in her Mercedes, and Reed in his Mercedes, and Erin in her Mercedes, and Eve in her Mercedes, and Lisa in her Toyota Prius. A thread is a basic unit of CPU utilization, the smallest sequence of instructions that can be executed independently by a computer. Multithreading is an execution model that improves the runtime of a program by concurrently running multiple threads (imagine each of the cars eventually follow Page Mill Road onto I-280 and are now in their own lanes). It works best if the threads in question are running separately; you’ll run into problems if multiple threads need the same resource. Only one thread can have the resource at a time. Thread starvation describes a situation where a thread routinely lacks access to resources it needs. Starvation isn’t inevitable — if you care to, there are multiple ways of designing a system to avoid it. In other words, I never wanted for you to leave your girlfriend, only for you to let me go when you realized I needed something you couldn’t give.

I told you once that being with you felt like we were underwater. That it was fun and beautiful, but it also felt like I was drowning: a starvation of oxygen. “I didn’t know you felt that way,” you said. I believe you were genuinely surprised. Perhaps it truly did seem like I could be tossed into the deep end like a more successful iPod prototype and be light enough to float. “If there's something I can do to make you feel better when we're together, then let me know,” you suggested. You cautiously wondered if it were still possible to keep me — save and accumulate, as capitalism demands. To let me go may have seemed reckless and wasteful, but it would have also certainly been more humane. I have not been able to use tech to model love in its success. I have found that there is no better way to model love in its failure.

After their breakup, it seems as if Messina and Hunt began to question whether or not the facts of tech could be transposed so cleanly onto their personal lives. “I think information should be open and free and available,” Messina says in a conversation with Yeung a few months post-breakup, “but not everyone should let all information about their relationships be public all the time. Some things should be private.”

As for Hunt, she wrote a poem named “Body content and soul” and posted it to her personal website. “His flesh and blood self is tangled in her real arms / while I send my messages off to be read from afar,” she wrote. “I just want / to be touched again / really touched / not poked or messaged or emailed / touched … / the man who related more to his machine / than my body is using his body to heal / and i’m left with my machine.” It should be no surprise that touch never decays as reliably as the technicians say it will.