Why We’re More Interested in Shopping for New Gadgets Than Using Old Ones

And why 'upgrades' are better for the manufacturer than the user

  • Apple's newly-patented interactive AirPods case shows the pointlessness of gadget "innovation."
  • Upgrades are often worse than what they replace. 
  • Shopping is easier than actually learning how to use whatever you've already bought.
Someone lounging on a couch holding a tablet computer and a credit card as if shopping online.

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Apple just patented an AirPods case with a built-in touch-screen, just like the worst ever iPod Nano, and it's a symptom of our insane thirst for 'upgrading' and perceived convenience.

Our computers are too big, so we get an iPhone. The iPhone is apparently too much trouble to take out of a pocket, so we control it with an Apple Watch. And now an Apple patent that turns an AirPods case into an iPod. It's a ridiculous circle of purchasing and desire that sees us constantly shopping for—and buying—new gadgets instead of fully using the old ones. And the only person that can stop it is you. 

"Companies invest heavily in marketing and advertising to make their products more attractive and desirable. This can create a sense of excitement and anticipation around new products that can be hard to resist, [and] can lead to a desire to purchase new devices, even if they are not necessarily needed or useful," Marcus Davis, co-founder of wellness software company Wellyx told Lifewire via email. 

Why Learn When You Can Buy?

I'll use music-making as an example because I know it well. Electronic musicians might see a new synthesizer or drum machine in their news feed. Then they chat about it on forums, watch videos from "synthfluencers," people who get free gear in exchange for shilling it on their YouTube channels, and generally convince themselves that they 'need' it. 

Then, once we have bought the must-have gadget, we quickly get bored, and the cycle starts again. 

Some people may not feel confident in their ability to learn how to use new features or technologies on their current devices.

"I think that people can underestimate the amount of time it takes to learn to use their instruments, and hence if they're not making rapid progress, they look to buy more equipment rather than practice. Took me four years to get to a reasonable level of competence at violin, can't see why electronic instruments should be any quicker," musician Stiwon told Lifewire in a forum post

The same goes for any other hobby that features gear. Fishing, being an audiophile, bike touring, golf, and so on. Buying a possible improvement may always be easier than actual practice. 

"Some people may not feel confident in their ability to learn how to use new features or technologies on their current devices. Therefore, purchasing a new device may seem like a more appealing option," says Davis.

Shop Til You Drop

Shopping has long been a pastime in itself, but it used to involve going to the shops. The internet has made the process much more efficient. You can learn about a new item, research it, and nonchalantly click buy within a few hours. Even better if it's at night after a drink or two. You'll end up with clothes you don't wear, a stack of beautiful but unused notebooks, and so on. You get a nice rush from buying something, similar to the little mood bump from seeing unread messages. But like any addiction, the high doesn't last long and needs to be repeated. 

One of the drivers of our insane addiction to buying things we don't need is the upgrade cycle, where we replace perfectly good tools with newer versions that may or may not be any better. In an article about the upgrade myth, The Verge's Monica Chin talks about a whole year's worth of PC laptop launches that were significantly worse than their predecessors in key areas like battery life. 

Some browsing smartphones in an electronics store.

Maskot / Getty Images

But it's not just the promise of supposed improvements, or increased convenience, that makes us buy so much stuff we don't need. There's also good old-fashioned social pressure. 

"Fear of missing out, commonly known as FOMO, is another factor that may contribute to people's openness to trying out new technologies," wellbeing counselor Pareen Sehat told Lifewire via email. "People could feel compelled to try a new product for themselves if a friend or member of their family has recently purchased it and is talking about it, as this could make them feel as though they are missing out on something novel or interesting."

The cycle is a hard one to break, but it's possible. Remember that for every new purchase, you are also left with an old device that needs to be sold, stored, or otherwise disposed of. That stuff weighs on your mind, as well as your pocket. The next time you're tempted by that must-have object, try to understand whether it really is better, and even if it is, do you actually need it anyway?

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