Caught in the arms race of new tech

“Can you please call me? We probably need a new computer…”

My mother in law had left me a text message, asking me for help.

This might look like a typical scenario, where the older generation leans upon the younger in order to figure out how to use the new tech of the twenty-first century. That it would be an easy and small problem, often solved by one of the most basic questions every first line support agent has learnt to ask: “Did you try turning it off and on again?”

Technology is speeding along so fast that the older generation have trouble keeping up. We see the image of an elderly person scratching their head with a smartphone in hand, wondering how on earth you’re supposed to dial a number with this thing. There’s a reason that marketing departments try to sell their products with “It’s so easy, even your grandma can do it!”

That image does not apply to my mother-in-law.

My in-laws have not only one but two computers. When their mac mini got too old and tired for the current operating system, the son of one of their friends installed ubuntu linux on it for them. Thankfully I found a desktop version that emulated the macOS visually, with a top menu bar and dock at the bottom. They oriented themselves fine as long as the buttons and programs were where they were used to find them.

Because they sometimes both want to access a computer at the same time, they bought my trusty old MacBook when it was time for me to upgrade to a new machine. I replaced the battery on it before they got it, which gave it new life for another other couple of years.

Thanks to the combination of a (relative) trouble free operating system and hardware combo and a pretty techie grandma, text messages like these were rare. My mother-in-law seldom asked for my help. When she did, it was mostly to confirm that she had understood the problem correctly and that her solution would work.

That’s why I was surprised to get this message.

When I called to see what she wanted, it turns out she didn’t need my help to find a solution to a computer problem. She had already figured it out herself, naturally. But she had been caught in the twists of the upgrading cycle.

She was locked out from using BankID.

Locked out from what?

In Sweden, BankID is an electronic identification system which has grown to become the main way of identification online. It’s issued by your bank, since they have to verify your identity as a customer, and used by authorities and businesses alike.

It’s used like an external single sign-on provider. A site can ask the BankID service for your identification, the BankID application that stores your certificate will ask for your ID password, you enter it, and the BankID service will respond to the site whether identification was successful or not.

These BankID certificates expire ever so often and you need to regularly issue new ones. This is generally a good thing for security, even though it can be annoying sometimes.

All public authorities use it, and most have shifted their services to exclusively use it for logging in. Private businesses have followed suit. You need it to be able to log in to sites and sign transactions everywhere.

As a service provider, it’s great. You don’t have to handle user accounts and passwords and so on. Just ask the BankID service to verify the user, and get a token back if they successfully identified themselves. It’s completely impossible to use a pseudonym or have any kind of anonymity, the user is identified and verified to be who they claim to be.

As an individual, you simply have to have a BankID. It’s hard to conduct your life without it.

Becoming stuck in the arms race of new tech

What happened was that my mother-in-law had to renew her BankId. To renew the ID (which is technically a computer file) she needed to upgrade the BankID application (which handles the authentication part). But she couldn’t upgrade the application because it didn’t support her version of the operating system, macOS 10.9. And she couldn’t upgrade the OS to a current version because the laptop was too old and Apple didn’t support Catalina 10.15 on it.

So now she was stuck.

This whole chain was something she had figured out herself. She knew she could update the operating system to some no-quite-as-old intermediate version but that would only buy her a bit of time before she would be in the same situation again. She wanted to talk to me in order to offer to do the same deal as we did once before: she wondered if I was upgrading to a new laptop soon so they could buy my old one. She was stuck in upgrade hell.

I know how she feels because I’m in similar place. Not with BankID, but with my scanner.

When I upgraded to macOS Catalina, my scanner stopped working. It’s a combo printer and scanner unit, and the machine works fine on its own. It’s just that the driver is not updated to support Catalina. When I go to canon’s website to download updated drivers, I get the message “We don’t support this version of your operating system, you are welcome to browse our current offerings instead”

Meaning, if I want to have a scanner that works with my computer, I need to buy a new one. Thankfully I can still print ok, but some options are not available to choose from the computer.

This dance is becoming ridiculous. We are expected to keep buying new machines, even though there is nothing wrong with the old ones.

I haven’t replaced my printer/scanner yet because I haven’t had a pressing need for it. But the principle bugs me.

Here in Sweden, they have added a special tax on plastic in order to minimise the use of plastic bags. For the sake of the environment. So now we are all switching to paper bags in order to feel like conscious consumers, but we still have to buy new electronic gadgets on the regular because someone somewhere decided that that’s a perfectly acceptable way to do business. That’s what keeps the wheels of the economy turning.

What the what?!?

How can we change the expected lifecycle of electronics

From the canon’s perspective, I get it. It’s not viable to keep developing software for all old products ever sold in order to be compatible with all new and future releases of computer operating systems out there. At some point, you have to draw the line and focus on what generates revenue.

But as a consumer, it’s super annoying. And for the planet, it’s short term wasteful and in the long term harmful. Where do all these functional-but-incompatible electronics go?

Ship it to the third world you say? But they will also need and want to upgrade at some point. Why should they stay on 10 year old technology? How is that fair?

And what about all the electronics that stop functioning? The fact is, businesses are intentionally making products that will not last longer than a certain amount of years in order to keep up demand for producing new gadgets. And in doing so, we as a species are producing So. Much. Crap.

Is it impossible to build something with the intention to last? I don’t think so, but sometimes I wonder.

Do all electronics have a built-in short shelf life? Is that inevitable?

Will 10% of our lives in the future be perpetually tied to upgrading and maintaining tech? And is it really smart to create a society that depends on something so undependable?

I don’t have a solution for this dilemma.

Right now I’m looking into replacing the battery on my laptop, in preparation for handing it down and buying a new one for myself.

I’m using scanner apps on my portable devices until the printer stops working altogether. Sooner or later, I’ll be forced to replace it anyway. But I’m trying to push that date as far into the future as I can.

I’m just wondering when the day will come when I send a message to my daughter-in-law:

“Can you help me? I need to replace my tech and I wonder if you’re buying a new one soon so I can buy the old one from you…”

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