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Roundtable: What Other Tech Conspiracies Are True?

The longstanding rumors about Apple slowing down its older phones are true, so what else is? We’re here to discuss some of tech’s biggest whispers, and also to find out what phone Rodger Sherman is using.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Wednesday we learned what we long believed to be true … is, in fact, true. Apple does indeed slow down the batteries of its older phones. Apple says it isn’t doing this in order to prompt you to upgrade but rather to address performance issues that come along with older batteries. But the fact remains: We thought a thing—planned obsolescence—was happening, and the company we accused of doing it basically gaslit the hell out of us. Big time. Now we know the truth and there’s no telling what else might be happening. We’re here to discuss tech and the internet’s bigger conspiracy theories, starting with what we discovered Wednesday.—Molly McHugh

Did you believe in this conspiracy theory before Apple confirmed it?

Kate Knibbs: Yes, indeed I did.

Molly McHugh: I actually did not ... I was team “batteries just get old and start sucking!” (Not to say I inherently trust Apple. I do not.)

Knibbs: I mean, they DO get old and start sucking, but I think Apple is well aware that the way its software updates hurt older phones nudges people into buying newer phones.

Victor Luckerson: I assumed older phones got slower because the software upgrades were more complex/taxing, but didn't connect it to battery management.

Katie Baker: 100 percent and I am a full truther about this extending past phones and into computers as well. My iMac, that I have taken great care of and whose hard drive capacity is like 10 percent full, wheezes like a pack-a-day smoker.

McHugh: Did you think this all on your own—like Oh hey, I upgraded and now my phone sucks—or did you read that New York Times article about it and then connect some dots?

Rodger Sherman: I never thought about it. But now that the news is out, IT ALL MAKES SENSE. After years of clicking “update later,” my finger slipped a few weeks ago and now my previously lovely iPhone 5 feels like an abacus.

Luckerson: iPhone 5, damn.

Sherman: LISTEN.

McHugh: Oh my god, Rodger. HOW.

Sherman: IT WORKED FINE. UNTIL NOW.

McHugh: That's incredible. You deserve an award.

Luckerson: Isn't that the one right after Siri came out? Holy shit.

Sherman: Apple did this to you guys.

McHugh: What version of iOS have you been using? I propose another roundtable in which we just discuss Rodger’s phone.

Baker: A big eye-opener for me was when an Apple Store Genius explained to me that Apple products more than five years old (seven years in some more consumer-friendly states like California) are considered “Vintage” or “Obsolete” and Apple basically washes its hands of them.

Riley McAtee: I’ve owned only one iPhone—an iPhone 4 I had until December 2013. Apple released iOS 7 that year, and the iPhone 4 was the oldest phone that was eligible for that update. I updated my phone and immediately its performance—already nothing to write home about after three-plus years—nosedived. It became slow, glitchy, and borderline unusable—and I didn’t believe it could be a coincidence. How could an update make a phone worse? Unless … was the plan to make it worse so I would upgrade? I switched to Android after that and never looked back. Related: I haven’t updated my Macbook Pro since February 2014.

Sherman: Upon further investigation: I have a 5S.

McHugh: OK, so Riley, you went full conspiracy theory?

McAtee: How could I not? Apple had just released the iPhone 5S right around the same time it released an update that essentially bricked a bunch of older phones? No way it was a coincidence. Why release an update on a phone that can’t handle it unless you want to get the people holding those phones to upgrade?

Knibbs: It’s not a conspiracy theory!!!!!!

McHugh: I mean, there are two folds here: People who believe the slowdown was to protect the battery but was still happening, and the people who think it was to make people buy new phones. And the latter sort of remains because Apple is still denying that part. SO FAR.

Knibbs: I think both are true.

McHugh: I mean I guess they both can be true and Apple doesn’t have to claim that.

Knibbs: And look, Katie just pointed out that Apple designates its old phones as “obsolete.” Let’s assume that the designation doesn’t happen on ACCIDENT. Then … it was intentional, a.k.a. planned, a.k.a. the company is openly planning obsolescence.

Sherman: If it is to get people to buy new phones, it's working, because I have to switch now. It dies between 10-20 percent. The screen isn't particularly responsive, although I don't know if that’s part of the deal or just my dying phone.

Luckerson: If Apple didn't want you to buy a new phone, it’d send you a push notification telling you why your phone’s performance is changing and encourage you to buy a new battery.

Knibbs: Exactly Victor!

McHugh: Yeah it’s WAY too hard to change your battery.

McAtee: Just for the record: The battery on my iPhone 4 was not an issue when I updated. What became an issue was the performance. Apple could also make phones with removable batteries if it cared about battery performance that much.

McHugh: Yeah my battery suffered but my phone also became glitchy. If I opened Snapchat at all if the battery was below 50 percent, the phone turned off. And it would get stuck moving between apps. And then I broke it, so I had to upgrade and now everything is fine.

McAtee: Apple could claim that one issue with a removable battery is that it would mess up the waterproofing, but that wasn’t a feature on phones in 2013. It made the choice to lock in the battery to sell more phones.

Luckerson: Apple has only acknowledged this battery-preserving technique on iPhone 6 and up, so there’s no telling exactly what it was up to on the older devices.

Rodger: Say my name, Victor.

Does this (or DID this at some point earlier than Wednesday) change your stance on Apple the company, or on buying its products?

McAtee: It’s confirmed what I knew all along! I’m never switching back to iPhones but can’t rip myself away from Macbooks … yet

Baker: The “vintage/obsolete” thing annoys me because like … I feel like it’s reasonable to expect a laptop to have a lifespan of more than five years!! I might as well lease one if they’re gonna do me like that. (Can you even lease them?)

McHugh: I'm sucked in for life. It's too hard to switch now.

Knibbs: Nah, I’m still gonna buy Apple products but be cranky about what slimers they are.

Sherman: I got this phone in 2015. It's 2017. It's absurd that just saying the model I have elicits shockwaves of horror.

Baker: Agreed with Knibbs, I’m more so just going to distrust the company while I continue to consume its wares.

McHugh: Yeah we're in a cycle where you get a new phone every year, and Apple's new plan for that is sort of pushing us all to that end.

McAtee: Sometimes I think I’d just be happier with a flip phone.

Knibbs: Same! But I am directionally challenged and I use my phone for Google Maps on a daily basis.

McHugh: I will definitely think you are both spies. If you're under 50 and using a flip phone, I'm immediately suspicious of you.

McAtee: Maps is huge. I also like having a decent camera in my pocket at all times.

Luckerson: People are actually holding on to their phones longer these days because they're so capable and the end of two-year contracts has made everyone realize these things cost $700+. So I guess Rodger was ahead of the curve.

What other tech conspiracies do you believe in, or do you hear often?

Baker: I absolutely believe that Facebook/Insta is listening and watching us at all times.

McHugh: OK but like—via the network they've created or like ... ACTUALLY listening/watching? FROM the phone?

Baker: I don’t care that they’ve said they’re not … that’s exactly what a guilty company would say.

Knibbs: Did you listen to the Reply All episode about that? It’s really good. They end up sort of debunking the idea … but not that well, because I walked away from listening to it pretty convinced that Facebook is listening.

Baker: I’ve definitely mentioned a brand in conversation and then seen ads for the brand without Googling first. I KNOW IT!

McHugh: I want to believe it’s happening but I also think the vast amount of information I’ve given over to the internet is what’s making these seemingly spying-created moments possible.

Luckerson: Facebook has made too many outright denials about it to ever get caught red-handed in some sort of Grand Deception. I don’t think it does it in the eavesdropping way people sometimes think.

Sherman: Just FYI, I’ve spent the past five minutes trying to determine whether I have a 5S or 6 so we can maintain factual accuracy. You don’t have to put this in the post.

McHugh: That’s definitely going in the post. Rodger’s phone is actually a carrier pigeon.

Rodger: I don’t know how to take apart this Otterbox.

McAtee: I think what happens is someone you know (perhaps the person you were having the conversation with) searches for that thing, and then Facebook assumes you may be interested as well since you two are connected.

McHugh: So it goes like this: I mention a new restaurant to my friend IRL. My friend Googles that. Then that restaurant shows up in my Facebook feed because Facebook knows we’re friends—and maybe even knows we hung out recently because of a tagged Instagram post. Etcetera, etcetera.

Knibbs: That’s the Reply All explanation. But it doesn’t explain how people see ads when they’re just talking about something, without Googling. I’m keeping an open mind on this one …

McHugh: OK, so there's that conspiracy theory—what are others? My favorite is that Snapchat is using face filters to create a secret program that has everyone’s face in a database for some sort of nefarious purpose. But like ... Facebook already, admittedly, has that (minus the nefarious purpose part).

Luckerson: People also block out the vast majority of banner ads they see, so it’s easy to imagine the Big Brother one jumping out at you subconsciously.

Knibbs: A tech conspiracy theory that I believe is that Taylor Swift and Apple were in cahoots in 2015 when her open letter changed the company’s streaming policy.

Baker: Another thing that isn’t necessarily a controversy but gave me a real WAKE UP SHEEPLE moment recently was finding out that when you do those visual CAPTCHAs where it’s like, click all the boxes that have a street sign … you’re helping autonomous vehicles get smarter. And I mean that’s kind of brilliant but it just was a real “whoa” moment for me regarding the interplay between me and Big Tech.

Knibbs: I did not know that, Katie!

Sherman: I have no fucking clue how to take this Otterbox apart but I Googled the string of letters and numbers under “model” under “general” and this is a 5S. Just FYI.

McHugh: I believed in Locationgate before all that came out. But it’s sort of hilarious now to think we ever lived in a time when we didn’t think our location was being tracked.

McAtee: Sometimes I think about how location tracking would have saved Adnan from Serial a lot of trouble … or gotten him in more trouble. Either way, it would have been case closed. That’s how I convince myself it’s not so bad that I’m being tracked at all times.

Luckerson: The best internet-related conspiracy is that Michael Jackson composed the music for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 on the Sega Genesis in secret.

Baker: ?!

Knibbs: Isn’t that one true?!

Baker: Victor slips that in at the buzzer.