Without setting out to do so, I recently completed a three part series of Odes to Obsolescence. I lamented the loss of VHS. I sang the song of my Seiko Spanish translator. I tried to come to terms with the announcement that sales of the iPod have ceased. In each case, I was inspired by news and nostalgia.
Products certainly have life cycles and as giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon offer more integrated services, there is a consolidation that consumers crave. I guess I do too, however I also miss the “angularity” of products–doing one thing consistently well off wifi. That continues to be my inspiration. The overriding question becomes: As technology changes, how does our relationship with devices and content change along with it?
As technology changes, how does our relationship with devices and content change along with it?
We have all seen this before. Hippies, slackers, Millennials and hipsters have long searched for relics to revive. The turntable, the typewriter, the Moleskine notebook, the fixed gear bike, the retro gaming system. In some cases these were authentic artefacts, in other cases they were rebooted systems. What is different, I think, is that our digital archive–songs, movies, photos–is tied tighter into who we are today. Increasingly, the “digital me” has become the primary means of how we present as beings. Yes, downloads and photos get stored on servers, but what happens when the gadget is gone? Does it matter? Does it matter more now than it did 10, 20 or 30 years ago?
What does it mean to be obsolete in an era when obsolescence is forced?
I notice that I am not the only one exploring questions related to where these devices belong–both as accessories and archives. “Baby Driver” has stirred nostalgia for iPods, and sales have since skyrocketed. Likewise “Landline” has opened conversations about all things awkwardly analog in the 90s. Some web designers have chosen a 90s aesthetic, opting for cascading windows instead of flat graphic. I don’t know about you, but the “Stranger Things, Season 2” trailer has me driven to find a place to play Dragon’s Lair.
So, if nostalgia is ever present and if the Apple and Amazon are riding unprecedented success, what does this mean for obsolescence? What does it mean to be obsolete in an era when obsolescence is forced? What, if anything, does it say about our relationship with digital devices? How is this different from our relationship with analog devices? Where does the new iPhone and all the fanfare surrounding it fit? What are the generational impacts of the smartphone compared to those of a pocket full of different gadgets?
Also, as the retro artefacts are increasingly digital themselves, there is a shift in dialectic from analog/digital to digital/digital. Are artefacts still available? Will they run? Are they supported? This is different from winding a vintage watch or busting out a Ball jar.
There is also a whole other field of inquiry: how can technology from the past, perhaps considered obsolete, be rebooted. For instance, IBM and Sony announded earlier this week that they had stored 330 terabytes on a palm-sized cartridge. Cartridges?! What could we do with laser discs? Beta tapes?
These are questions hacks like me, high-powered thinkers and Hollywood studios are struggling to answer.