Learning To Love Obsolescence

Obsolescence is the future in reverse. Everything we design, make, covet and buy moves in a natural arc from the drawing board to the garbage.

Junk happens. Junk happens fastest in the areas of life where we are most intent, most engaged and most creative. In 1950s America, junk was about cars and planned obsolescence. In the '90s it was computers and Moore's Law, which decrees that computer chips get twice as zippy every 18 months. What we're really describing is the rate at which "state of the art" becomes garbage. Every time the digital season changes, vast herds of machines with nerd-macho names like SuperBrain and PowerBook are hauled ingloriously out to the dumps. And we go buy more. And that's good. Our machines are increasingly temporary, while we humans are increasingly permanent.

Imagine if it were otherwise. Imagine that you bought a computer that was the last computer you would ever own. You would be mortgaged to that machine like a medieval serf. It would still be indispensable, but irreplaceable as well, so you'd live in terror of its various whims and illnesses. Instead, its place in your life is fleeting: that's what separates our world from Orwell's 1984, and the Internet from Big Brother.

Today all of our most vital technologies are racing to become junk. They're poorly regulated, but they don't last long enough to become tyrannical. Junk makes us free. The threats to our happiness aren't in our tidal wave of new, candy-colored gizmos. The real trouble lies in not sending our bad habits to their proper graveyards. Everything with moving parts, everything with electric plugs, everything that buzzes, rings, clicks, clacks, pings, cooks, chops, slices and dices, every thing, is a larval form of junk. It briefly passes through our hands and wallets into the long, sickening darkness of our mindless neglect. But since history goes in only one direction, the evidence of our denial can only mount up. We can only have more and more junk.

So we need to see junk very differently: as an integral part of the basic business of living. Handled sensibly, junk is a resource, a useful property that happens to be in the wrong place. It can be folded into the production stream, and brought to serve our desires again and again. But as sure as the sun's rising, repressed junk-- dismissed or ignored--will return to hassle us, poison our grandchildren, render our world a little uglier. This means showing some adult respect for the trash.

We should never again feel all mind-boggled at anything that human beings create. No matter how amazing some machine may seem, the odds are very high that we'll outlive it. There is no technology around today or in the foreseeable future that won't swiftly become obsolete. Emerson once said that "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind," but he lived with big creaky telegraphs and steamships. We live with chips and bar codes, and we're in a position now to get a serious upper hand on our things.

We face a challenge to understand obsolescence, to learn to see its dynamics and to surf it. There is a genuine melancholic beauty in a well-designed mechanism that no longer serves any purpose. Like Duchamp's bottle-rack, it becomes a found objet d'art. A metallic fossil of some lost human desire. A kind of involuntary poem.

Things are too much with us because we have too much of the wrong kind of respect for things. Wonder is an emotion we need to reserve for phenomena like the size of galaxies and the spans of geological time. A human effort like technology is best regarded with pity. A weird, temporary gizmo like a nuclear missile is a merely material thing: its fuel goes bad, its space-age gyroscopes are hopelessly old-fashioned, even the oh-so-mighty warhead has a ticking half-life. We wouldn't have nuclear power plants if we'd asked real questions about their garbage. Coal power plants are even worse, smoldering all over the planet like half-crushed cigarette butts.

Tomorrow's garbage is very easy to predict: it's everything that we love today. Industrial designers are visibly itching to stuff smart chips into any object that can bear the stuffing: shoes that charge up your cell phone, coffeepots that talk. Inevitable? Probably. Amazing? No, not at all. It just means that tomorrow's junk is smart junk. We'll have intelligent garbage. We'll have tons of useless stuff busily computing all the way to its grave.

The things of earth return to Earth, and, properly handled, so will our technologies. The only things we've built that the Earth can't touch? Dead 20th-century machines, lying beautiful and obsolete in that timeless lunar dust.