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Acceptable or commercially driven obsolescence

There are several types of obsolescence. The first is for products that have been superseded by a better item, or an item that removes problems associated with the original. Such obsolescence is fine. No one would now consider building an ice-house to act as a refrigerator, nor would we actively choose to buy a 50-year-old car for daily usage, unless we were able to maintain it and took pleasure from the work. In terms of hardware and products, whether cars, clothing, or washing machines, the goods will age, wear out, decay, and need replacement. This is inevitable, and we also age and decay or become ill. Indeed, obsolescence can be driven by genuine progress, and in the case of electronic items, we may well accept that the improvements justify throwing away older equipment.

Equally, if we have confidence and a strong character, then we can choose to resist, or follow, the fashion changes dictated by the style gurus. So fashion is also in the acceptable category of obsolescence, as we may choose.

Intentional obsolescence that is forced upon us varies from irritating to unacceptable. As a simple example, we can buy a floor mop in a supermarket, and discover a short time later that the replacement mop heads no longer exist, as the market has switched suppliers. The truly unacceptable examples are when we no longer have freedom of choice, and we are forced to throw away working items that were adequate for our needs.

If one looks at a technology where we, the consumers, are possibly ignorant of the details of the way a system works, at the industrial level the same situation is likely to be occurring, but hidden. For example, all our communications via optical fibres are forcing the cable companies to have signal capacity that is doubling on timescales of a year at most. Existing technologies can rarely be simply upgraded to cope with such changes, so the only solution is to invent new techniques. This takes time, considerable effort, and investment, so it is essential to recoup the development costs before they too have to be replaced. Speed is essential, as any delays can allow entry into the market by a competitor.

The only pragmatic and realistic solution is to ignore the earlier systems and go for new ones. This is equally a route to obsolescence, not just of the optical fibre technology, but also of many areas of the underlying science. This ongoing desperation at the development level will not be obvious to the general public. Nevertheless, failure to deliver will cause Internet traffic jams and chaos. So far this overload has mostly been avoided, but inevitably such events will occur. We will then need to totally review and reconsider what is essential Internet traffic. Perhaps a bonus to users is that we might then take the steps needed to block spam and unsolicited advertising, as it is estimated to be more than half of the email usage. Perhaps higher fee structures would seriously hit the spam and unsolicited junk mail, but still provide income to the cable companies.

Rather than only criticize, we should be impressed by the ongoing technological advances in long-range communication. Historically, with the visual signals sent by flags or heliographs, each pattern was limited to about one a second. So spelling a sentence with 60 letters could take a minute. This was the forefront of technology less than two centuries ago. The electrical circuits of the Morse code telegraph, in the mid-nineteenth century, raised it towards 200 characters per minute. The switch to valve electronics for radio and TV in the twentieth century represented a further improvement, by a factor of around a million times. Semiconductor electronics, together with modern optical fibre communications, now transmit as many as a hundred channels per fibre, each with data rates above a hundred million per second. So within 200 years, communication efficiency has risen more than a million million times. The progress is incredibly impressive, but achieved by totally discarding earlier methods and inventing new ones (i.e. controlled and conscious obsolescence). Unfortunately, we, the public, have responded by greater usage, and our demands are rising faster than the signal capacity. The potential for traffic jams or signal collapse are therefore increasingly likely in the moderately near future.

There is a similar problem with mobile phone signal capacity, especially because of the millions of photographs that are transmitted each day. Since their life expectancy is generally measured in minutes, it is not an efficient use of the technology. One may make similar comments about many blogs and other social media sites that are viewed by millions.

The communication systems are further stretched by surveillance of our transmissions, such as the government ‘security’ scanning of emails and Internet traffic for keywords related to terrorism or criminality. They are moderately effective, so in practice they are justifiable, even if we dislike the principle. By contrast, electronic eavesdropping to make profiles of our interests and lifestyles is unacceptably intrusive. In this case, the profile data are used to automatically provide related commercial advertising. However, both types of surveillance application add considerably to Internet activity. Even more annoying is that such intrusion is currently not just from our native governments, but is operated by other nations on both our internal and international emails, etc.

Less obvious obsolescence is caused by the quality of the manufactured product, especially of expensive items such as cars and double (or triple) glazing. Our only obvious clue on the build quality is the warranty. I interpret a short warranty as implying the construction is poor, whereas a long warranty offers hope of better construction. More caution may be needed if the warranty only applies to the purchaser and the product is typically sold on (e.g. if the house owner moves) during the warranty period. Warranties are a sensible guide, but not infallible, as there have been examples of highly popular car models that were sold at very low prices because costs had been cut in areas such as antirusting. For new cars, this is not immediately obvious, but with older models the patterns of value collapse reveal when this has happened.

Very rarely do makers ever say that they have built in a way of causing decay and the need for replacement. An exceptionally honest example was relayed to me from a friend of mine with a canal boat. He bought some new rope fenders that looked extremely well made and asked how the craftsman stayed in business. The maker admitted that there would be no need for replacements unless he encouraged them to rot, so he included some lime in the middle when he was making them!

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