French designer Anaëlle Beignon recently graduated from the Interaction Design department of Malmö University. In this excerpt from her master thesis, Beignon shows how obsolescence is not just an internal quality of a device, but a dimension that emerges from the relation between such device and the broader sociotechnical ecosystem.
“My computer is too old, I’ll have to change it soon.”
This sentence may make sense, but how did “old” become a synonym for unusable? “Old” in this context could refer to a degradation of the performances of the device (speed, battery, etc), but it can also refer to difficulties that occur from living with a device that does not fit anymore its environment (compatibility, features, etc). Why is it so hard for “old” and “new” technologies to co-exist?
This short article focuses on the process by which a technological device becomes old, obsolete. My main argumentis that obsolescence does not only refer to objects that break earlier than expected. In a lot of cases, obsolescence is triggered by external changes in a world in which things are connected: when one evolves the others have to evolve as well. I propose to reconsider the concept of obsolescence from the perspective of the tech industry’s agency on the ageing of well-working products. Being myself a designer, I reflect on my responsibility in the making of obsolete products and present alternative approaches of envisioning technological development.
Background of the Term ‘Obsolescence’
The history of the term ‘obsolescence’ starts with the concept of ‘planned obsolescence’, first described by the real estate broker Bernard London in 1932 in his article “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence” where he argues for planned obsolescence as a way of fostering economical growth by pushing society to produce and consume more products in the context of the Great Depression.
I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”
This idea of obsolescence as the normal course of things (commercial goods become too old and should be replaced) is strictly related to the way of envisioning consumption of goods and services in a capitalist society. In his dissertation, Kristoffer Gansing (2013) states that technological evolution is based on the production of obsolescence. He links this linear vision of the development and replacement of technologies to the Schumpeterian concept of creative destruction, where the replacement of old technologies by new ones is a persistent process under capitalism. This would later be called ‘radical innovation’. In reaction to this linear conception of technological progress, Gansing argues for a network view grounded on the cultural aspect of how technology is practised and performed at a given time. The normativity of technological evolution is therefore challenged with what he calls “heretic counter-practices and strategies”. Nonetheless, this linear vision of progress is still dominant, and the constant making of obsolescence has become the norm.
The Anthropologist Julia Watson documented indigenous knowledge and practices in order to rethink the dominant understanding of innovation and technology. The picture shows a ‘living root bridge’ which can be found in Meghalaya, India. Credits: picture by Pete Oxford, from Julia Watson’s Design by Radical Indigenism (2020).
Socio-Cultural Aspects of Obsolescence
Consumer behaviour is generally presented as having a major impact on obsolescence (Cooper, 2010). People are urged to keep objects for longer for the reason that they could be considered responsible for discarding functional products for better ones. Users can choose which technology they want to use or not but their willpower is constrained by their social, cultural and economical environment. Therefore, factors such as the cost of good quality products, access to public services available with a smartphone, or the social networks used by their relatives to communicate will all have an impact on the life span of a phone. Choices will be made according to which functions such device can fulfill and what are the needs and aspirations of its owner.
In a 2008 qualitative study on the lifespan of phones, Elaine Huang and Khai Truong had already identified the reasons for replacing devices that were still functioning properly. The main reason was economical (a discount, or the renewal of their contract), the second one was the desire for more features and functionalities. Only then came the replacement of phones because of a breakdown or dysfunction. This example significantly illustrates the impact of the context over the breakdown of the object as a motive of replacement.
These external reasons that push users into changing their devices can be connected to the notion of “premature ageing” coined by the design activist Matteo Zallio and HCI researcher Damon Berry in 2017. It relates to hardware malfunctions (for example the accelerated ageing of batteries), but also by a consumerist society that leads to a premature replacement of well-working products. This aspect is particularly linked to Huang and Truong’s research outcome about the significant influence of two-years phone contracts on the frequency at which people change their phones, which generally happens when they renewing their contract.
‘Premature ageing’ reframes obsolescence as a process drawn by external causes and not just by a predefined life cycle of the object. Therefore, when speaking of obsolescence, the different forces that produce it in a given context are indivisible from the properties of the device itself. In other words, electronic devices become obsolete because of the technological, social and cultural environment around them. Aspects such as a government’s decision to limit access to public services only to latter devices will play a role in the obsoletion process of older devices that are not supported anymore by the service.
Design Approaches to Systemic Obsolescence
Within design, various approaches have been taken to respond to the normalized production of obsolescence. Various angles on the end life of digital products have been documented from different parts of an objects’ lifespan: from the object’s conception to the extension of the object’s life. There is also another level that goes beyond the object itself and related to an individual and societal scale: prevention.
In an ethnographic study of hackerspaces, fablabs and repair shops, Nicolas Nova argues that all these places could be compared to laboratories where situated knowledge about the manipulated technology is produced. In this context, we discover other ways of caring for electronic devices and rethinking end-of-life scenarios. Taking into account existing systems and skills that already exist, it is possible to make changes in the perception of the obsolete. However, repair cannot completely challenge the obsoletion processes as repairing an electronic device means taking the risk to spend money on an object that
might not be compatible with essential services in the next months or years.
Storefront of a mobile repair shop. Source:
https://www.hesge.ch/head/projet/mobile-repair-cultures-reparation-informelle-linnovation-silencieuse-cas-des-smartphones. Credits: HEAD – Genève.
Steven J. Jackson (2014) examined the infrastructures underlying disruptions in the conventional life-cycle of an object in a consumerist society (purchase, use, discard). He coined the term ‘Broken world thinking’, a perspective on the fragility of the world we live in and how it is being constantly creatively restored. It is a critical vision of technological innovation, as it focuses on the constant maintenance efforts rather than on an idea of linear progress. Nonetheless, it has been criticized in Linda Hilfing Ritasdatter’s thesis dissertation (2019) as being a western-centred vision of the world enounced in the ‘broken world thinking’ expression.
Isn’t the “world” of “broken-world thinking” tightly connected to a specifically Western understanding of “world” as un-broken, that is, a flow of flawlessly running systems and processes? Albeit one where the one engaging in “broken-world thinking” realizes that this stability is not ontological to the systems, but rather continuously enacted through invisible repair and maintenance.
Ritasdatter interrogates the fluidity of occidental lives, and how what might be considered hidden or invisible comes actually from the privileged position one can speak from. It is important for practitioners to be clear on the perspective they adopt on a certain topic. In the case of obsolescence, a simple opposition between the normative up-to-date world pushed by the industry and obsolete world made of old objects would be reducing the view on the topic to a privileged gaze. Instead, we should acknowledge that different realities exist when we take the world as a scope, and that pushing a vision of obsolete technologies being completely forgotten would mask the areas of the world where the use of these same technologies would be the norm.
The direction I am taking for my work is towards an understanding of technology as vernacular to subvert the hegemonic vision of it. Approaches questioning the end life of objects in more unconventional ways have also been of great inspiration for my thesis as they come to the point of challenging the mediums for designing.
This is particularly explicit in Hertz and Parikka’s work on ‘Zombie Media’ (2012), a notion opposed to that of ‘dead media’ and critical of the planned obsolescence of technological objects. This approach consists of repurposing and diverting obsolete devices by reactivating them in creative ways. They propose ‘circuit bending’, a practice invented by the artist Reed Ghazala, which consists of modifying the electronic circuit of everyday objects in order to give them new behaviours. Nonetheless, the finality of circuit bending designs is to carry a critique of the forces that create ‘dead media’, more than the actual possibility for these ‘zombies’ to find their place again in people’s lives other than in museums.
The Dead Minitel Orchestra is a collective that
produces performances with circuit-bended Minitels (obsolete computers from the 80’s). Source: https://minitel.re/.
Other more pragmatic propositions exist, such as Will Odom’s (2009) ‘objects that improve over time’. Odom focuses on the temporality by which we built our relation to digital objects. This approach is closely related to the emotional bonds that we create with objects and explores ways for technologies to subsist in time. Here, the causes of obsolescence are taken into consideration in the design of objects with the intent of re-thinking the consumption of objects outside the scope of trends.
Another interesting approach is Cristiano Storni’s (2014) suggestion to empower the user by keeping visible the traces of construction of the devices to make it easier for the users to appropriate them. The emphasis here is not anymore on an emotional motivation to keep an object, but on education to the technologies we own. This would be an opportunity for emancipating ourselves from technological objects that can’t be understood, repaired or maintained because they are designed as black boxes. This critique meets the argument of the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich (1973) when he presents convivial tools as fostering the autonomy of the one who uses them.
Jerry is a computer built from scratch with the
minimum amount of material possible. It is made out of a jerrycan, an object that can be easily found in developed countries. Source: https://youandjerrycan.org/
Miles Park (2010) proposes different ways for ‘defying obsolescence’ that are drawn upon examples of products, behaviours and societal factors. He mostly talks from a product designer’s point of view, which therefore includes digital devices but does is not confined to them Among other proposals, he presents ‘piggybacking’ as a way of adding another device to the existing one that cannot fulfill its function anymore to sustain its use for a longer time. The example taken by the author is ‘set-top boxes’ for analogue television sets to extend the potential uses one can make of them by enabling access to digital broadcasting services. This example takes into consideration connections
with other devices and actors from different generations.
The Digital Slide Viewer, part of a series of artifacts designed by Will Odom, explores how digital materials can be transmitted between generations in a future when the picture’s format is not supported anymore by the current technologies. Source: http://willodom.com/portfolio/portfolio/technology-heirlooms/.
One object on its own will difficultly challenge obsoletion processes simply because obsolescence is not just about individual objects, technologies and devices, but embedded in complex systems. This is an interesting orientation for designing with new technologies: instead of assuming that users will upgrade their hardware equipment as new things arrive on the market, it is important to take into consideration what people actually have access to.
For designers, rethinking obsolescence means rethinking our idea of technological innovation. The designation of certain technologies as “obsolete” is pushed by the dominant vision of the technology industry, which profits economically from the constant replacement of goods. For ecological and social matters, this dynamic should be challenged with initiatives that do not consider old products as outdated, because even if the industry decides so, people might still be using them in the meantime. How we value a technology over another is related to how we value their users. If we forget to design for a certain type of technology, then we also forget to design for their users.
This framing of the question of obsolescence is an opportunity and an invitation for anyone having agency in the conception of digital services and related products to care for the obsolete. As an exploration, I researched the implications of it regarding the digitalization of public services in my master thesis, with a focus on software compatibility and physical public infrastructures in Sweden. It reflects further on the marginalization of the users of obsolete devices who are indirectly expected to buy new digital products in order to access public transportation or public healthcare.
Designing for obsolete devices is a strategy for considering differently products and people that are currently not the priority of the industry, and I believe that a critical understanding of obsolescence can open a lot of new directions for designers from all design fields.
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Cooper, T. (2010). The Significance of Product Longevity. Longer Lasting Products: Alternatives to the Throwaway Society, 3-36. Surrey: Gower Publishing.
Hertz, G., & Parikka, J. (2012). Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology Into an Art Method. Leonardo, 45(5), 424-430.
Huang, E. M., & Truong, K. N. (2008, April). Breaking the Disposable Technology Paradigm: Opportunities for Sustainable Interaction Design for Mobile Phones. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 323-332.
Illich, I., & Lang, A. (1973). Tools for Conviviality.
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Theories and Approaches for Designing Enabling Technologies. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S3749-S3761.
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