Technology and Its Discontents: Planned Obsolescence

Last Sunday a friend and I took a trip to visit the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista. I have been tremendously enjoying the process of learning to use my new camera, and the museum provided an abundance of wonderful subjects. Yet, as I wandered amongst the rusting hulks of old tractors, engines, trucks, and farm equipment, I felt a pang of unease. The museum is a testament to obsolete or aging technology, and some of the machines have been lovingly cared for or meticulously restored so that visitors can appreciate the technology of days gone by. In many cases, the old machinery did not look that different from what is in use today, but small, incremental changes over time led to the abandonment of the old in favor of the new. In other cases, as with the steam engines, radical new technologies led to the complete obsolescence of previous innovations.

George Bernard Shaw said “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” When I came across this quote I shuddered. To me it speaks directly to the human desire to shape the world in his image. It is steeped in a theological ideology of man’s supremacy over and domination of the world. It does not see humans as the animals they are, destined to adapt – or not – to their environment. As I noted in a previous post, human adaptation takes the form of wanting things to be easier, faster, and better, and this idea was amply illustrated at the museum. What was wrong with the machines that had been abandoned for better (and there’s a word that needs a critical unpacking) models? I’m not arguing that innovation is necessarily a bad thing; but when we consider how our ability to do more things more easily has changed the world and our ability to survive in it in greater and greater numbers with a greater and greater impact, it’s worth thinking about whether it’s necessarily a good thing.

Taking a turn towards more modern technologies, I find myself wondering when we will have museums filled with obsolete televisions, computers, and cellphones. I realize we have antique communicative technologies in museums already; radio has been around for more than a century, and so have telegraphs and telephones. Television is not far behind, and computers are nearing the half-century mark. But unlike the technologies of old, which seemed to change and innovate relatively slowly, computers in particular are changing so fast that what you buy today is practically obsolete tomorrow. This is not an accident. Humans seem unable to leave well enough alone and adapt to what they already have. Shaw’s remark about progress is pertinent, except that I don’t think it’s the unreasonable man alone who is responsible for Shaw’s so-called progress. Instead, it is human nature itself, because it wants faster, easier, better… and ultimately, higher status technologies even if we don’t actually need them. We are being relentlessly manipulated and trained into believing that we must have the next big thing, and nowhere is this more apparent to me than in cellphones and computers.

I don’t want this to turn into a rant about advertising, but I am so angry and distressed at the commercials I have seen recently that attest to this planned obsolescence phenomenon. One is for Cox Communications and features a recurring, annoying dad character who races around boasting of his blazing fast internet speed and his ability to watch streaming movies and TV everywhere he goes. In a scene where he walks down a staircase, eyes glued to his computer tablet, I found myself wishing the commercial’s punchline would be dad tripping and tumbling to his death from a broken neck. Alas, that wouldn’t sell many subscriptions to Cox. Another commercial, for AT&T, states that they are offering a new plan wherein customers can Upgrade to a New Phone Every Year! With No Activation Fee! And No New Phone Upcharge! All I could think when I saw that one was “holy shit, we are doomed.” I recently met an old friend for dinner, and he was using a cell phone he’d had for 13 years… and it still works. It doesn’t text, or have more than a rudimentary screen, or a (what used to be so cool) flip cover; it’s just a phone. And guess what? We were able to use it to communicate. I found myself feeling a mixture of envy and nostalgia for his decision to stick with the basics.

What are we doing to ourselves with this attachment to newer, better, faster? What are the ultimate long-term consequences of “progress”? Is it really better that we have increased the earth’s human carrying capacity to billions? Or is our insatiable need to take what’s not really obsolete, or even necessary, and trade up for something better going to lead to a crash? In a way, by refusing to adapt to the world as it is, we are planning our own, ultimate obsolescence.

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