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Confessions of a Late Adopter

Confessions of a Late Adopter
Confessions of a Late Adopter

    I love gadgets, I really do. But unlike your typical fanboy or -girl who can be found standing in line at Best Buy or the Apple Store days before a new product’s release, I’m more likely to be found trolling the aisles of the local thrift store, surfing eBay, or scrounging through the clearance bins at Office Max looking for my gadget fix. I’d like to say it’s merely economic, and that’s part of it, but the reality is this (cue dramatic music):

    I’m a late adopter.

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    Like I said, I love gadgets. I’m the go-to guy for any tech-related questions in my family, and carry a few pounds of silicon-and-LED goodness on my person at all times. The thing is, the shiny new gadget I’m oohing and aahing over is liable to be a year out two out of date.

    Why is that, I hear you ask? There are a few of good reasons I can think of to refrain from buying the latest thing, and even to buy one or more generations removed from a company’s current line-up.

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    • Cost: The most obvious reason to “buy old” is cost. Once an item has been replaced by a more up-to-date product, its price drops significantly. If I can get it used (which in the case of gadgets often means “kept in a drawer for three years and forgotten about”) I can save even more. I can’t usually justify the price of new gizmos to fulfill my gadget-lust, but I can usually spare the eBay price a year or two later.
    • Bugs: New products, especially when they break new ground, are often riddled with problems; waiting to buy lets the manufacturers and the forums and the howto sites catch up with fixes, patches, and workarounds.
    • Hacks: Users often find ways to add new functions to gadgets that the manufacturers never dreamed of. But new software, new uses for old software, sometimes entirely new operating systems take time to be developed. For example, there’s a version of Linux you can install on an iPod, but it has to be an older-generation iPod. (In fact, it seems that every gadget gets its own version of Linux after about 2 years. Call it Dustin’s Law.)

    Let me offer a couple of examples. The best laptop I ever had was a Compaq Armada 4200 I bought for my ex. (She wasn’t my ex at the time.) I bought it about 3 or 4 years old for around $200, with a trackball mouse (I hate trackpads), 32 MB memory and a 6 gig hard drive, running Windows 95. More than enough juice for the word processing and Internet surfing she did. Plus it was less than a foot wide and about an inch thick, and the battery doubled as a carrying handle. I liked playing with hers so much I bought another one for myself. Then I bought another one for her friend, and another for her parents.

    Here’s another example: I’m writing this post on an AlphaSmart 3000 I picked up in a thrift store over the summer for $20.00. The AlphaSmart is essentially a stand-alone keyboard with a 4-line, black-on-grey LCD screen and a little memory. You type stuff in, connect it to a PC with a USB cable, hit “send” and it literally types your document into whatever program you’ve opened on the computer. Intended for use in elementary schools, the AlphaSmart is small, light, tough as heck, ultra-simple, and it runs forever on 3 AA batteries. It’s the ultimate “monotasker”; it does one thing and one thing only, and because of that, it’s a favorite tool of writers who want the ability to write anywhere without the distractions and power demands of a laptop.

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    On the other hand, I bought my Treo 680 the week it was released. I’ve always been a late adopter with my Palms, from my first Palm IIIe bought as a closeout in 2000 to my Handspring Visor bought on eBay to my Treo 180 (also bought on eBay). I did buy a Zire 72 when they were still on the market, breaking the late-adoption pattern and setting a bad precedent — I had few problems with the Zire and thought Palm could pull it off again with the Treo 680.

    I was wrong. The 680 has been plagued with problems — poor battery life, weird phone behavior, coming on by itself at apparently random times, and so on. Some of these problems have been addressed, though nothing has made it live up to the promise that made me a Palm user in 2000. If I’d waited, I would have seen the forum postings and the blog articles that panned the unit — even as it was getting positive reviews from the standard tech sites. I’d have seen the near-total silence on Palm’s part as its users grew more and more vocally outraged about the faults that made using the Treo 680 so unpleasant. In short, I’d have bought something else and saved the $200.

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    Bill Maher recently joked that the iPhone’s early adopters, the folks who paid through the nose for their phones only to see the price dropped 2 months later, had paid a “nerd tax” for the privilege of showing off their shiny new gadgets before anyone else could get their hands on one. I’m not a nerd tax kind of guy, I guess — I don’t really care if my gadget belt makes others green with envy, so long as my tools do the job I need them to do. My feeling is that whatever gadget I’m looking at worked well enough a year or two ago, so unless the newest version is a revolutionary advance that offers me a must-have function that nobody else is offering, why not go with the older version?

    Look at iPods — a few years ago, folks were crazy over their iPods with photo capability. The devices themselves haven’t changed just because newer ones came out that play video or have wifi — they do the same job just as well today as they did then. If I want a quality device that plays music and maybe shows a picture or two, why wouldn’t I go with the old one?

    In the end, I suppose I’m advocating that we look away from the promises marketers make and think more deeply about what we need our gadgets to do. The folks who make this stuff have a lot invested in coaxing a new purchase out of us every year or so, but my needs — and probably yours — don’t actually change that much, that quickly. This isn’t to say I never buy anything new, but I think carefully about whether I can fill the same need with an older, cheaper device. It’s not settling — I don’t accept less than what I need. But I decide what those needs are, not a manufacturer or marketer who’s made a place for me in their fiscal planning.

    And that’s the point — know your needs and meet them as efficiently as possible. A lot of gadgets seem to be designed as an end in themselves — you don’t use them, they use you. Knowing what your needs are — whether as a professional in your field of work or as an individual desiring some form of entertainment or whatever your case may be — well enough to select the right tools might well lead you to be first in line at a launch-day event, but that’s a considered choice. Which is a world of difference from being there just because it’s new, and new must be good, right? Often, older isn’t only good enough, it’s better.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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