The Perfection of the Unnecessary
or, The Internet of Retards
We recently purchased some lightbulbs that required an app to set up. That’s right: a lightbulb app. It turns out you need a wifi connection to set up a lightbulb. I’m repeating this so many times because I can’t believe it’s come to this.
See, we’ve renovated our bathroom and purchased the bulbs recommended for our chosen light fixtures. We never thought you’d need an app to set up your lightbulb. I still can’t believe this is a thing. And no, we couldn’t get it to work. Because of course not.
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Technology peaked sometime in the first decade of this millennium. Can you believe we’re in the third? Wild. Especially when you consider that everything is basically the same as it was in the late 1990s, just worse and stupider.1
After 2008, maybe 2010 if you’re feeling charitable, stuff just stopped working. It stopped getting better. Each new iteration of a thing, anything, be it piece of tech or software update or latest version of whatever gizmo was not greeted with a fist pumped in triumph but a fist clenched in anger. “Why mess with what works?” you find yourself thinking. “The last change made this thing unsuitable for the purpose I bought it for, and the last two fixes for that change didn’t make that first change work. What now?” When was the last iPhone that represented a true innovation that might be deemed necessary or essential?
I experienced this with Wordpress. Wordpress used to be so easy to use, either on my laptop or phone. Writing posts was fast and easy, with a clean interface that worked. And then they overhauled everything and turned it into a platform that made blogging hard. And it’s a blogging platform! If you can’t perform your core function, you might as well not exist.
In this spirit, I now have lightbulbs that won’t work if I don’t set them up with a smartphone app.2
It is an inevitable consequence of what some derisively call “late-stage capitalism.” At some point, you run out of new, useful stuff to sell to people to replace the old stuff that still works. Can’t have that. New new new. “Innovation.” Amazing as it is to believe, humanity innovated a lot before profit über alles became our official state religion. And settle down all you normiecons: no, communism isn’t the answer either, nor am I advocating for it. But I’m allowed to criticize capitalism without falling into the false binary we’ve been forced to accept.
As an aside, way back on bird app I had a libertarian explain to me why planned obsolescence is actually a good thing. In fact, I just googled “Why planned obsolescence is good,” and this is the snippet from the top hit:
Advantages and disadvantages of planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence is great for goods manufacturers and for the economy because it keeps sales stable and even growing year after year by encouraging consumption. At the same time, society also benefits from constant investment in R&D&i.
“encouraging consumption”! You can’t make this stuff up. And can’t companies invest in R&D without needing to make their products stop working on purpose?
You can have any lightbulb you want as long as you need a smartphone app to set it up. No, I will not let this go.
“Oooh, you can set a timer with the app! You can dim it! Oooh, aaah!” It’s a bathroom light. If I’m too lazy to just turn it on myself when I want to, I deserve to be kicked out of my own country by migrant hordes. They do the jobs Americans won’t do, like turning their own lights on and off themselves.
We’re constantly being sold stuff, marketed to us like we’re drooling imbeciles. The internet of things is like this. “Your fridge will tell you when you’re low on milk! Wow!” Or, just look in your fridge you absolute moron. You retard. You want a toaster that can be operated remotely that will email you when your Eggo is ready? First, make real waffles like a grown man. Second, you are an easily impressed buffoon distracted by shiny uselessness who shouldn’t be allowed to vote, or reproduce.
Maybe if this stuff worked, I wouldn’t be so venomous. But it doesn’t. And it’s just so stupid I’m offended by it. With all of the problems facing the country and the world, our amazing innovative corporations are doing stuff like this. “It’ll help save the environment by reducing carbon!” Shut up. The only carbon I want to reduce are the people who make this stuff, market this stuff, and demand this stuff.
But does anyone really demand it? Or is the demand manufactured through a lack of any other choice? My money’s on the latter. We’re spiraling up and up in a never-ending gyre through our civilization’s rear end, creating new and exciting ways to solve problems that don’t exist. And then we’re told every bit of innovation helps humanity and, further, helps the economy, which, I’m told, can expand forever; must expand forever, or we’re all doomed. Which I do not buy. All things must end, whether it be life as we know it or a civilization that can no longer send people to the moon but can create phone-powered lightbulbs.
“The perfection of the unnecessary.” That’s what my father always calls stuff like this. Eventually your kitchen will be overcome with gadgets, each one performing one hyper-specific task and each requiring access to your email account and credit card information when you could combine seven of those functions into one amazing tool we’ll call a knife.
It’s old guy yelling at cloud time: we’re falling too in love with our technology. Maybe literally. Here’s an experiment: leave your house without your phone. I’ll bet you can’t do it.
Back on his 1979 double-album rock opera Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III,3 Frank Zappa posited a world where the First Church of Appliantology helped latent appliance fetishists get their rocks off with household technology for a nominal service charge (“Fifty bucks, please,” demands church leader L. Ron Hoover). And so Joe goes to a club called The Closet and falls in love with Sy Borg, an industrial vacuum cleaner with marital aids stuck all over it, and no I’m not making this up.4
But ask yourself: we’re not that far off. I guarantee you, much as the adult film industry is the real reason the Internet took off, it will also be the reason that AI and androids become a thing. It’s disgusting to think that the business dedicated to bringing you a better wanking experience drive our technology, but is it really that far-fetched of a claim? Maybe Zappa was on to something. Or maybe he was just puerile and immature and just needed to find a way to get people to buy his records en masse so he could slip his advanced, avant-garde compositions and killer guitar solos into their hands. I don’t know. I do know that the First Church of Appliantology, or something similar, is likely something we’re going to see in the near future. Nothing is getting better, it’s only getting worse, and there’s no way out.
Do what you can. You won’t be able to save the world,5 but you can save your own dignity. Reject this. Reject it all. Demand cars with actual keys and not buttons. Demand software that makes your life easier and not harder. Demand appliances that are durable and will last years, decades, and not fall apart by design after three years for no reason other than to make you buy another one. Stop making excuses for gigantic megacorps. Demand lightbulbs that don’t need an app.
Laugh all you want about the 90s aesthetic, but back when the world looked like this, we had a reasonable—and justified—expression that the future would be better:
How many moderns does it take to screw in a lightbulb? It doesn’t matter.
Like much of Zappa’s work, you have to take the bad with the good. Though nowhere near as deliberately offensive and incoherent as 1984’s concept album Thing-Fish, Joe’s Garage also suffers from Zappa’s inability to complete his thoughts, instead taking what begins as a bitingly satirical wrecking ball taken to both government (in the form of modifying the constitution in tiny paragraphs to make us all equal in our criminality by making music illegal), the music industry (a favorite Zappa bugbear), and the journalistic profession (which everybody should hate) and slathering it with juvenile sex jokes, albeit clever ones. It’s a shame too, because some of the latter songs about the depressive effect of not being able to do what you love, and of music being illegal and thereby making the world colorless, would be very emotionally powerful in the hands of someone more interested in lyric writing than Zappa.
A portion of actual lyrics from the song, sung in dialogue between Joe and L. Ron Hoover:
Ron: Well, you have nothing
To fear, my son!
You are a Latent
It appears to me!
Joe: That all seems very,
I never craved
Or a color T.V.
Ron: A Latent Appliance
Is a person who
Refuses to admit
To his or herself
Only be achieved
Through the use of
Get the picture?
Joe: Are you telling me
I should come out
Of the closet now
Ron: No, my son!
You must go into
Ron: And you will have
A lot of fun!
They all live
So if you want an
Appliance to love you
You'll have to
Go in there
'N' get you one
Sure, it was funnier when I was 17, but it still gets a chuckle or three from me.
You’re not God; God is.