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Peddling Information Anxiety

When I visited an old friend from high school at his office at Microsoft one spring, he took me on a swing through the company store, where employees can buy software for 80 percent off. My eyes darted around maniacally and my pulse raced as I amassed stacks of CD-ROMs and added the latest upgrade of Microsoft Word to the pile. The latter seemed like a terrific bargain as it included dozens of sensational new formatting features like AutoCorrect, AutoText, 100-Level Undo, drag-and-drop editing, Table AutoFormat, and something called Wizards.

But the bargain on Word 6.0 turned out to be wasted cash. After I installed the program’s 13 high-density disks onto my hard drive (the previous upgrade had required just 5), I found that all the new bells and whistles had transformed the program into a zoo of capabilities that were cumbersome to learn and had slowed even the most elemental functions to a painful crawl. The minor fiasco raised the obvious question: if it wasn’t broke, why had they tried so hard to fix it?

Mostly because it’s terrifically profitable. The goal of the information industry is to convince consumers that, whatever they have, it isn’t enough. That strategy reaps billions of dollars every year for programmers, manufacturers, marketers, and public relations professionals. If Windows 95 felt like old news in 1996, that’s because Microsoft planned it that way. Since Microsoft makes most of its profits on upgrades, the real product it is selling isn’t hardware or software but information anxiety.

It works. At the beginning of this decade, IBM found that people were replacing their computers every five years. By 1995, users were considering their machines obsolete in just two years. What they only yesterday regarded as critical machinery they now saw as useless plastic. Overall, by the year 2005, the nation will have tossed some 150 million computers onto the scrap heap.

Upgrade mania does not come cheap. While personal computers are relatively inexpensive compared with their bulky predecessors, the pace of improvements is such that the personal computer habit ends up costing individuals and businesses a significant chunk of change. “Did you ever notice how, for anything else, three hundred dollars is a lot of money?” a friend remarks as we drool over CD-ROM drives in a computer store. “But in the computer universe, we don’t think twice about spending it.”

Upgrade mania also exacts a social cost that cannot be measured in dollars. “We see a training gap,” says Oracle’s Bill Seawick. “Technology is coming at such a fantastic pace that people have to learn new technologies every three or four months.” What’s more, points out economist Juliet Schor, new technology “leads to the expansion of tasks that people are expected to do. We are supposed to improve our performance and output year after year after year.”

When Americans tell pollsters and therapists that they feel they are losing control over the basic structures of their lives, it’s partly because they are. The ferocious upgrading of the machinery all around us undermines our sense of security and continuity.

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