The New New

Why We Dread New Software Updates

Is this misery normal, and for that matter, inevitable?

Angela Lashbrook
Published in
5 min readNov 12, 2018

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Photo: hanieriani/Getty

Every damn day, a window pops up in the upper right corner of my MacBook.

Updates available. Do you want to restart to install these updates now or try tonight?

Inevitably, I’ll click “try tonight” and, since my computer is rarely plugged in, I’ll get another notification — a reminder that updates can only occur when the computer is hooked up to a power supply.

Research shows that notifications can destroy focus and even cause stress and anxiety.

Despite feeling like I just updated my computer a few months ago, I’m still plagued with update notifications that pop up when I’m busy with other tasks (or just scrolling through Twitter). It’s relentless: Just when I thought I was free from my notification prison, I’d be reminded to update before I click — again! — “remind me tomorrow.”

I’m not the only one enraged by my computer’s endless nagging. Tens of thousands of searches about disabling updates occur on Google every month, according to the platform’s keyword planning tool for advertisers. A 2017 Pew Research survey found that 14 percent of people never update their phone’s operating system, and 42 percent only do so when it’s convenient, despite these updates sometimes containing urgent security fixes.

Research shows that notifications can destroy focus and even cause stress and anxiety. While researchers have yet to turn their clinical attention to software updates specifically, it’s likely that the unwanted diversion I get from annoying email push notifications, robocalls, or overactive group chats causes the same neurological response as my computer’s daily reminder that I’m not taking good enough care of it.

Sara Thomée, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, described it in evolutionary terms. Our brains, she told me, are evolved to react to stimuli to protect us against danger; a corresponding rise in stress hormones, like cortisol, will better enable us to react to that danger. In a sense, she said, technological notifications act in a similar way.

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Angela Lashbrook
OneZero

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.