The Shelf Life of Technology

Most everyone I know has some equivalent of a “junk drawer” in their house – it’s the place to go if you need to find a book of matches, a ball-point pen, or a USB cable. And recently, the junk drawers in our lives have become a final resting place for a growing pile of useless goods: obsolete digital tech. Who here still has their old Nokia “brick” phone from the early 2000’s, that device renowned for its ability to get run over by a train or dropped from the roof of a high-rise and still take calls (with custom ringtone)? Maybe you had a cool flip phone from the Matrix era, a sweet BlackBerry, or were an early adopter of digital camera technology (in 640x480 glory). But these devices all came onto the market with an invisible expiration date – they were products of their era, and in their era alone were they useful. Outside of that 3-to-5-year window, they became paperweights. Can’t access the network, can’t update the software, can’t find a replacement battery. Off to the junk drawer.

Sometimes our reliance on transient technology can become crippling, like the recent cases of blind individuals whose retinal implants suddenly went offline because the company behind the product faced bankruptcy and abandoned ship. As one patient said, “It is fantastic technology and a lousy company.” A very real danger of dependence on “supported” tech is the likelihood that the support will eventually be pulled out from underneath you. This has become a predictable thing in today’s world of planned obsolescence – the only way Apple can sell so many iPhones is by intentionally pushing older ones towards the junk drawer. Make the old product increasingly frustrating to use, and those new ones start looking pretty nice. Longevity and durability don’t really sell anymore.

I want to hold this up in contrast to a more timeless variety of technology – the kind of tool that was used to build the homes, material culture, and livelihoods of countless generations before the Industrial Revolution. Once such a tool was purchased, its successful and enduring use was entirely in the hands of the user – proper sharpening, proper maintenance, skilled use, and it would last. It was not phased out for the new iteration or intentionally moved to obsolescence. This is increasingly rare today where growth and profit, not bad things in and of themselves, have become the only metric for a producer’s success. The novelty for the new has replaced a consumer’s desire to make things last, to revere the things that have lasted and so show their value. Reversing this trend might be an uphill battle, but all of us can make little inroads here and there.



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