Defining “obsolescence”

December 11, 2006

Yet another thought-provoking column from Wired. This one, by Kris Wagner, discusses gadgets built to fail. I do not think about this issue very much, unless something of mine breaks or becomes “obsolete.”

You might notice that I put the o-word in quotes. That’s because I get the sneaking suspicion that the definition of obsolescence seems rather slippery.

Right now, I have a cell phone that I bought two years ago (or maybe I got it free by purchasing a certain plan… I get confused about those kinds of deals). Serious technophiles would probably think that I’m way behind the times, and that I should dutifully upgrade to a brand-new phone that takes high-resolution video images, gets me on the Internet anywhere/anytime, and does the Highland Fling.

Even with a few scrapes that expose the dull ecru plastic beneath the phone’s brushed-nickle coating, it still works, and it does what I need to do. I can talk to people from practically anywhere if necessary (which is the primary raison d’être for having a cell phone); a full battery charge still lasts two or three days before going down a “bar” on the little battery graphic; and I can even take pictures, a capability that seemed like a real technological coup just a few years ago. In addition, after I lost my beloved Skagen watch somewhere between our house and Shady Oak restaurant a few months ago, my cell phone has also served as my interim timepiece.

Of course, my relatively low usage of the phone has probably helped it last more than two years. However, I suspect that I might need to get a new one in another year or two. It has survived quite a few accidental drops, but some “final straw” drop or the phone’s declining powers might force me to finally chuck it into the electronics recycling bin at Best Buy.

At what point will my phone ultimately become “obsolete?” Although the word gets thrown around so much in an age where developers improve upon older technologies rather rapidly, its definition actually seems rather vague (like “relevance” in information science). Does something become obsolete when a new technology improves on it? (In that scenario, practically everyone has obsolete devices holding them back.) Or does something become obsolete when a critical mass of people abandons an older technology in favor of a new one? (That’s a more pragmatic scenario, but how does one define “critical mass?”) Taking this issue even further, does a technology become obsolete when the last one of its kind finally gives out? (Considering that definition, we could question if VCRs are actually obsolete.)

These questions might seem silly, but I think that they demonstrate how notions of obsolescence depend on the perspectives and experiences of individuals. Extreme technophiles might sniff at the stuff the rest of us purchase from Best Buy, preferring devices that are only available in Japan, or that might still be under development. At the other end of the obsolescence spectrum, someone might be content to get a rudimentary version of the same device at Wal-Mart.

Despite my concerns about obsolescence and rapid changes in technology, I am impressed with the variety of devices available. There are quite a few devices that I would really like, such as an iPod or a flat panel television. Overall, I think that the best solution is for all of us to determine what we find important in our lives, and to guide technology to help us do those things. It should not be the other way around.


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