A pervasive myth of the pre-digital era was that warranties for vehicles and home appliances always expire right before you need them. Your car won't see the inside of a mechanic's shop for the three to five years it's under manufacturer's warranty. Your refrigerator will maintain the perfect chill and your washing machine will wash, rinse and drain for the one to six months they're guaranteed. But the moment the warranties expire, on goes the check-engine light and off goes the ice machine.
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You can turn your desk upside down, empty your filing cabinets and dig through your old shoe boxes until it looks like Hurricane Sandy hit your house, but the paperwork all says the same thing every time: You just became responsible for any problems with your purchase.
There is an explanation for this perceived trend. Manufacturers operate based on the principles of risk management. Every appliance that comes off the factory production line and each of its components have lifespans determined by exhaustive product endurance trials. Manufacturers create warranties that are slightly shorter than these lifespans, maximizing consumers' feeling of security and minimizing their own liability. Ideally, consumers decide it's not worth paying for the repairs out of pocket and opt to just replace their malfunctioning machines instead.
In general, consumers abide this scheme. The manufacturer gives them a warranty for a couple of years, while the car, fridge, computer or food processor meets their needs and is still in fashion. And by the time they move, get married or have kids and the machine is no longer the hottest thing on the market, they're happy for an excuse to buy a newer, better one. Everybody wins.
Whatever the overall validity of this theory, it's hard to deny the ubiquity of buy-and-replace culture. If you don't get a new car every few years, the neighbors may start to talk. And then, of course, there are the demands of your ego – possibly inflamed by a by quarter, mid or three-quarter life crisis. Even relatively unsexy purchases, like refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, food processor and DVD players, have to be upgraded regularly, leaving the curbs littered with perfectly good models waiting to be claimed by anyone willing to schlep them away.
This frantic consumer behavior has only gotten worse in the digital world, driven by the arms race between smartphone and software manufacturers. One month, Samsung releases a revolutionary new Galaxy smartphone, and the next, Motorola unleashes a miniature robot with a processor designed by German physicists, a camera that can take panoramic photographs of distant galaxies and an app that performs alchemy. Needless to say, it's a must have. But just wait, at the next Mobile World Congress, it's rumored that Google will announce an operating system beyond your wildest dreams – hint, it comes with 3-D glasses.
Of course, none of this will compare with whatever Apple unveils at its annual app developers conference. After months of commotion, involving four horsemen and seven angelic trumpeters, the company will inevitably usher in the next messianic era with its latest smartphone.
The pace of development can leave consumers are sweating, like Patrick Bateman on seeing his colleagues' business cards in the movie "American Psycho." Having bought a Galaxy 2 earlier in the year, do you already need to upgrade to the Galaxy 3? Should you get the iPhone 5 now, or wait for the iPhone 6, which will certainly have a more sophisticated operating system and faster processor?
The safest bet is to just keep buying. This leaves you chasing technology trends like a greyhound chasing a hare around a racetrack. But unlike the dog, you can never catch the hare. The faster you run, the faster the hare runs – and there is no finish line. At least you can document the race with the latest smartphone camera.