THR Blog   /   April 5, 2021

The Compatibility Trap

When Opting in Means Forfeiting Choice

Siobhan Lyons

“This app is not compatible with your device.”

Capitalism has long been criticized for its relentless emphasis on consumerism and marketing, and the combined effect of both on a general dumbing-down of society. Yet capitalism has unquestionably provided consumers with choice. Some even go so far as to say that choice is the bedrock of capitalism. As political economist Terry Hathaway put it: “Choice facilitates freedom and, as such, has been one of the central appeals of contemporary neoliberal capitalism; without choice, you cannot be free.”

Today, however, choice is fast becoming an empty mantra as consumers face the iron law of compatibility. Forced to “opt in,” users submit to a relentless schedule of upgrades and updates among the ever-proliferating gadgets and technologies that bring us so much while governing our lives more and more. For Hathaway, a lecturer at the University of York, this means that “a great deal of the choice on offer to consumer-citizens is illusionary.” Those who are not compatible are forced to make what is perhaps the last choice in our market economy: Upgrade or be left behind. And for many, that is a Hobson’s choice, at best.

The compatibility imperative is now so far-reaching that it shapes the infrastructure of society itself, diminishing consumer power and narrowing the range of real options. The public health crisis of the past year brought that reality into even clearer focus, as people were forced to adapt to demands of the digital infrastructure. In the effort to implement contact tracing throughout many countries, including my native country of Australia, for example, shops, pubs, and other venues required customers to scan a QR code. Those who did not have a phone or the required app were able to write down their names and details. But even those holdouts to the regime of the smartphone seem fated to eventual submission to a digital-only system—or else to a kind of social extinction. In late January 2021, it was announced that Australia would replace its incoming passenger card with a smartphone app. This move is part of a changing infrastructure that strips away the social standing of those who have yet to make themselves compatible.

My own iPhone 4S, considered archaic by today’s standards, is now incompatible with the latest iOS system. Unable to download apps or update my existing ones, I am effectively barred from certain digital experiences that are considered essential today. And when my trusty Sony VAIO became too slow to use and the keyboard itself simply died, I upgraded to an HP, but was dismayed to find that the usual one-off payment for the Microsoft Office suite was being phased out in favor of a subscription service of $100 a year. So if my new laptop lasts as long as my old one (which is doubtful), that adds up to an extra $800 or more for the privilege of using Microsoft Word and PowerPoint.

As the titans of big tech see it, the reticence to upgrade is nothing less than resistance to progress. But a willingness to upgrade does not benefit customers in the long run. It is only to surrender to an old trick of consumer capitalism: planned obsolescence. Indeed, obsolescence on steroids. The lifespan of technology has become so ludicrously short that any new release is hurtling toward obsolescence from the moment it hits the shelves. In addition to stretching the finances of consumers, accelerated obsolescence exhausts material resources (particularly precious metals) in ways that are simply unsustainable.

But the refusal to upgrade comes at a cost. Smartphones have woven themselves ingeniously through our lives. With ubiquity comes convenience, and with convenience comes reliance. In an era of tailored newsfeeds and invisible algorithms, users are increasingly attracted to the lure of the seamless algorithmic system and captive to the companies behind them, swapping consumer choice for the convenience of high speed technology, personalized results, and an endless array of apps. Like Apple, Google has created an extensive infrastructure that has become the key to membership in society. And because that infrastructure has become normalized, so entangled in the fabric of twenty-first century living, customers are under constant pressure to opt in and accept whatever design or privacy changes are introduced. Compatibility is a gateway drug to compliance.

We are now faced with an unhappy choice that pits liberty against convenience. “In this picture,” legal scholar Przemysław Pałka writes, “individuals do not have liberty taken away from them; rather bit by bit, they give it up in exchange for easy and pleasant lives. Not at once, maybe not even within one generation, but they do.” Liberty and choice now seem less precious than the convenience of a device that allows you to live your life seamlessly and efficiently, on par with your friends and peers. Aldous Huxley’s anxieties around the economy of pleasure and the forfeiture of freedom have come full circle. It was not necessary for freedom to be taken from us, as in some Orwellian dystopia. Instead, we willingly forfeited our choices by opting into the infrastructure of compatibility so that we, like our network of connections, could exchange photos on social media, accumulate likes and followers, and partake in the supposedly rich tapestry of digital life.

Although there are genuine alternative brands and services out there, the major brands muddy the waters by offering only a simulation of choice. Hathaway notes that there is a fundamental “disconnect between the image of a dynamic competitive capitalism—where choice is the product of genuine competition between many different companies—and the reality of oligopolistic brand competition—where your selection is limited to a choice of the outputs of a few companies.” But consumers are also partly responsible for narrowing the field of choice among companies, brands and services. Our dependence on convenience means we are in less of a position (and less inclined) to demand more from these companies. This has allowed only a handful of companies to flourish and dominate the market. Apple, Samsung, and Google are currently the major mobile companies. There are fewer and fewer alternatives, not because the “big three” necessarily provide the best products and services but because customers opt in to an exclusive system that is built as much on status as it is on service. It was Steve Jobs who proved himself a master of marketing as he shaped Apple’s brand into a community of prestige that won over legions of eager customers. Apple learned to foist incessant upgrades on those customers, and to dictate the performance of its operating system, even when it meant cutting some customers out.

Rather than resist, however, Apple loyalists acquiesced to the required infrastructure and purchased the technology that would make them compatible. Because the latter option is seen to be the easiest, it ensures that Apple and other big brands remain the most profitable companies, becoming even more powerful and even less accountable.

Cultural and social change today proceed on a network infrastructure and its labyrinthine algorithms that insidiously govern our lives. For those who take up the burden of opting out, the experience is akin to exile. But if choice is an illusion, then why think we have any role to play in the technologies we use?

The trajectory of technological evolution often seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable, and this is certainly what technological determinists believe. But to accept such a vision of the future is to abet a self-fulfilling prophecy that enables big tech companies to proceed with impunity. By opting in, we reject the opportunity to play a more active role in the technologies that we use, settling instead for technology to play a determinative role in creating us. But by opting out, by making the tougher choice to extricate ourselves from the ubiquitous system, we can change the kinds of technologies that will be designed and used in the future, rather than resign ourselves the byzantine infrastructure of compatibility.