We just had a lesson at our house about planned obsolescence. After struggling to replace a range in a width no longer manufactured (one form of planned obsolescence), we finally gave in and had a new kitchen counter put in to fit a standard size, then bought a new range. Three years later, the warranty had expired and so had something in the oven, for it now had no idea when to stop heating – rather scary. Unplugging it and forcing a computer reset worked for a while, but soon there was no controlling the demon machine. Because computer boards were involved, the cost of fixing the “new” range was $600 – just a few hundred dollars less than we paid for it. Our repairman sympathized and told us (after the fact) that we should have just kept repairing the old range, which – although twenty years old – was probably superior in every way to the new one. We have all been told this about cars, refrigerators, dishwashers – and yet…
Even knowledge seems to have an expiration date. Like many of our generation, I spent most of my working life learning to use new computer programs – programs for communication, finance, planning. I would just begin to feel proficient with a new system, and another one (better, faster, and supposedly necessary) would come along. One of my greatest joys on my last day at work was to put that all behind me – or so I thought. Little did I know that even in my old age I would have to learn how to use social media, stream movies on my smart television, and deal with the replacement of real people with AI in almost all my encounters outside the home. For the very old or computer-averse, life is very difficult these days. From the outside, we are also an example of planned obsolescence, time-dated from the previous century. Not a pleasant feeling.
All of which reminds me of two elderly characters from literature – one from Gulliver’s Travels (almost three centuries ago) and one from Fairy Tale, the most recent novel of Stephen King.
In the third book of Gulliver, we find the heroic Lord Munodi, who counts himself among the “very few, such as were old and wilful, and weak like himself.” These “old and wilful” are not caught in the movement to put “all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and mechanics upon a new Foot through an ‘Academy of Projectors.’” But, “that, for himself, being not of an enterprising Spirit, he was content to go on in the old Forms.” For his recalcitrance, and despite earlier service to the government, the aging Munodi is “universally reckoned the most ignorant and stupid Person among them.” Munodi is pressured to tear down his gracious and functional house to make way for the more modern, and to replace time-tested farming methods with new ones that deplete the soil. But under the pressure of science and technology, he knows he will lose and is just trying to hang on to what he can of the old world until he dies. His is a sad and hopeless case. Later in Gulliver, we meet the immortal and pathetic Struldbruggs, who have fallen so far behind the times, so obsolete, that they can hardly understand the language spoken around them; they have become “foreigners in their own country.” I think I know how they felt.
In the first portion of Stephen King’s latest fantasy, Fairy Tale, we meet Mr. Bowditch, who is very old indeed, and lives with his ancient dog Radar in a rundown Gothic house. Since he keeps to himself (think Boo Radley), scary myths about him abound. The main character, a young man named Charlie, finds himself in Mr. Bowditch’s story. The novel is too large to talk about in depth here (and I don’t want to give any spoilers), but what Charlie discovers – to his own awe and incredulity – is that not only does Mr. Bowditch not have a cell phone or a computer, but he has a television with vacuum tubes and does most of his business (including ordering new tubes when the television malfunctions) by mail and without a credit card. Charlie is mystified: Mr. Bowditch is perfectly happy with things as they are. I loved Mr. Bowditch. But Charlie is never quite persuaded that, perhaps, there is much value in longevity – of things or people.
This is how Wikipedia defines planned obsolescence: “The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as ‘shortening the replacement cycle’). It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force people to purchase functional replacements.” We are in an era of such comprehensive and rapid planned obsolescence that people begin to feel obsolete too. I don’t know about you, but whether I am capable of adapting or not, I do not want to spend my remaining years trying to figure out new ways to listen to my favorite symphony or communicate with my bank or carry on a conversation with my grandchildren. Or repairing appliances. But it doesn’t look like I’ll have much choice.