The Technium

The Art of Endless Upgrades

[Translations: Japanese]

When we first moved into our current house, newly married, I had some caulking to do around the place. I found some silicon caulking that boasted on the tube that it was warranted for 20 years. Cool, I thought. I’ll never have to do this again.

Twenty years later, what’s this? The caulking is staring to fray, disenigrate, fail. I realize now that 20 years is not forever, though it seemed that way before. Now that I am almost 60, I can see very permanent things decay in my own lifetime. Surprising, asphalt doesn’t last forever, nor do iron and even stone. Some of the most permanent things we can think of — the earth beneath us — visibly moves over 60 years. The hill our house rests on is slowly sliding around us. Over a hundred years tree roots can crumble foundations. Try to make something last for 1,000 years and you’ll quickly realize that this is an almost impossible achievement. It requires the constant application of order and energy to combat the everyday entropy unraveling what has been made.

It’s taken me 60 years, but I had an ephipany recently: Everything, without exception, requires additional energy and order to maintain itself. Not just living things, but the most inanimate things we know of: stone gravemarkers, iron columns, copper pipes, gravel roads, a piece of paper. None will last very long without attention and fixing, and the loan of additional order. Life is maintenance.


Most surprising to me has been the amount of sheer maintenance that software requires. Keeping a website or a software program afloat is like keep a yacht afloat. It is a black hole for attention. I can kind of understand why a mechanical device would break down after a while — moisture rusts metal, or the air oxidizes membranes, or lubricants evaporate — all of which require repair. But I wasn’t thinking that the intangible world of bits would also degrade. What’s to break? Apparently everything.

Here is news to the young: Crap accumulates in code. Chips weaken. Programs break. On their own, nothing you did.

And then there is the assault of the changing digital landscape. When everything around you is upgrading, trying new actions, or seeking new loopholes, this puts pressure on the website and necessitates maintenance. You may not want to upgrade, but you have to because everyone else is.

This upgrade arms race spills over into our private lives. It’s completely altered my attitude about upgrading. I used to upgrade begrudgingly (why upgrade if it still works?), and at the last possible moment. The trouble is familiar. Upgrade this and suddenly you need to upgrade that, which triggers upgrades everywhere. A “tiny” upgrade of even a minor part can be hugely disruptive. But as our personal technology became more complex, more co-dependent, more like a personal ecosystem, delaying upgrading is even more disruptive. So I now see upgrading as a type of maintenance: you do it to survive. Technological life in the future will be a series of endless upgrades.

Expecting to spend your life upgrading should be a life skill taught in school. Indeed, I’d like to learn how to manage maintaining my digital ecosystem better myself. There must be a zen and art to upgrading.


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