Paul Gilster: To upgrade or not to upgrade, that is the question

To upgrade or not to upgrade? It’s a question laden with possibilities and dangers. I bring it up because sitting on my desk as I write this is a new Kindle Paperwhite. I haven’t even unwrapped the packaging yet, a pleasure I’ll save as a reward for finishing this piece. The question is, does the upgrade make sense, and what exactly will it add to my life?

Some background: I love ebook technology and buy every Kindle that comes out – every ebook reader, that is; I’m not interested in the Kindle Fire tablet. This Kindle is the third iteration of the Paperwhite line, upgrading it to the same 300 PPI screen display found in the high-end Kindle Voyage. I have a Voyage as well, and suspect that Amazon will keep producing the Voyage as a separate line, the ‘luxury’ ebook reader with a display that responds to ambient light, a flat screen without imposed bezel and multiple page-turn methods.

I am obviously the kind of Kindle customer Amazon thrives on, someone locked in to buy the latest. Apple has conquered this demographic better than anyone, which is why a new iPhone is always huge news, and to a lesser extent these days, a new iPad or MacBook Air. Meanwhile, consumers have to find ways to justify what they buy, and this is where it gets interesting.

In my case, I write about these technologies, and thus justify the purchase along lines of “professional expense.” And after all, I sell the old Kindles off and recoup a lot of the cost. Surely, I muse as I plunk down the money for another Kindle, this is a rational decision.

Sucked into the whirlpool

But ponder this: A Harvard Business School professor and author named Francesca Gino recently explored the “must have” upgrade question by, among other experiments, checking an international database of 3000 lost iPhones. Because each iPhone has its own code, users can check a website to report their loss and see if anyone has found their phone. It turns out that fewer people go online to look for their phones when a newer iPhone model is about to appear.

In other words, when we want the latest version of something, we’re not necessarily upset if we’re “forced” into getting a new one. Gino’s research shows that we human beings can rationalize just about anything. The computer industry loves to throw a regular buying cycle at us, making us crave the latest every couple of years (a timetable made tangible by cell phone contracts). People like me can be all too easily sucked into this whirlpool.

When I look deeper into my Kindle motives, I realize this: I am obsessed for some reason with ebook reader technologies. It’s something about carrying entire libraries around in my pocket. Whatever the case, my buying of ebook readers goes back to the original Nuvomedia “RocketBook” in the late 1990s. It’s my only buying obsession (honest!), and at least it’s not particularly expensive. I mean, it’s not like I collect every new model of Porsche ...

No one answer

So I’m obviously not against upgrades even if they’re for reasons of enthusiasm rather than utility. There is no one upgrade answer. If your tools are performing as needed, just ask yourself about the rationalization in play and whether it is sufficient justification for the purchase. Most of my upgrade ideas don’t meet this test – I’m writing this on an eight-year old computer, after all.

And I’ll enjoy unwrapping that Kindle (and hopping on eBay with an older one to sell) because it’s an indulgence I allow myself. We just need to be aware of what we’re doing, which can make the buying decision considerably more introspective. Another part of Francesca Gino’s research shows that we treat old gadgets carelessly when we know a new one is on the market.

Whoops, did you recently drop your older generation phone? Seems to happen a lot.

That speaks of compulsion rather than sound thinking, and more than a few high-tech companies are making money off it. We gadget buyers need to cultivate self-awareness to decide which upgrades suit our lives, and which are the result of advertising and image.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at