The conveniences of a compliant technology press are not to be underestimated. But there is a still more significant aspect to being a lifestyle brand within the digital space, closely related to something I call emotional obsolescence: the point at which a purchase stops imparting the gratification it first afforded.
The promise that novelty and beauty can bring happiness and status is hardly a new feature of consumerism. Yet this sentiment, imported from the realms of brands and fashion, has arrived among digital technologies in a particularly intense – and intensely lucrative – form.
As the author (and fellow BBC Future columnist) Matt Novak noted on Twitter when Apple introduced its fourth generation iPad on Tuesday: “the real story here is that Apple shortened its planned obsolescence cycle to 6 months.” Aiming to achieve a revolutionary technical breakthrough several times a year is an impossible business plan. Fuelling a frenzy of public feeling at the same interval, however, is eminently possible.
Hence the heady ecstasy of the modern product launch – and the fact that the best generator of technological profit margins in 2012 isn’t features or value for money, but the very fact that there is another model out there which is newer and different. It is an emotional experience that money most certainly can buy.
It’s also a seductive, dangerous game to play. Can one company continue to dominate perceptions of quality, cool and desire? Microsoft, Samsung, Google and many others are betting not. Will consumers continue to buy into shorter lifespans and incremental changes to products? Only time will tell.
To my mind, though, what ultimately differentiates digital technologies from fashion and other forms of consumption is the nature of the promise being sold – and of the emotional obsolescence being rammed down purchasers’ throats. The notion of shoes and clothes making you a better person is one kind of fiction, and a powerful one at that. But with interactive media, what’s being promised is a lifestyle in a far more literal sense: a complete system for expressing yourself in the world, not to mention regularly topping up the premium status of this existence with purchases.
Similarly, an operating system that “works the way you do” – as Microsoft puts it – makes a powerful appeal to our sense of self. It may also offer a magnificent user experience. Yet it begs the question: if this is so great, why should I keep on seeking something better?
One answer is that this seeking is just another part of how we work: never satisfied, seeking perfection in continual motion away from the present. And while this isn’t the whole story, it is a large part of the vision of lifestyle and humanity that the freshest crop of product launches are selling.
There’s an important warning in all this. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle puts it, in her recent book Alone Together, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.” More than ever, we need to make sure we know what we're really signing up for when we plug into these new seductive lifestyles. Buy and enjoy by all means. But remember: few things are more perfectly engineered to fade over time than seduction.