Certain Boomer basements are little shrines to obsolescence, untidy stockrooms of the one-time cutting-edge: VCRs, corded telephones, immense beige PC monitors, etc. Way fewer Millennials will have basements to store trash in (‘home ownership’ itself quickly verging on obsolete), but presumably, once climate change really hits and they’re all renting cots in corporatised storm shelters, they’ll have little lockers to put stuff in. And it’s worth wondering: what worthless old technology will they be inexplicably hoarding? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of historians of technology for their takes on what tech will become obsolete in the next fifty years.
Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Virginia, whose research focuses on the history of technology, among other things
If you could tell the futurists of fifty years ago that I, in 2019, would use chalk on a blackboard in my university classroom every day, they’d give up forecasting. Fifty years ago people at NASA were predicting manned bases on the Moon, and manned missions to Mars, by the end of the century. And no one really saw social media, Wikipedia, or dockless scooters coming until they were already here. If you had asked this question fifty years ago, common answers would have been paper, coal-fired power plants, and subsonic passenger airliners. Fifty years later these and many other commonplaces are still ubiquitous. The Boeing 747, introduced 50 years ago, is still in production today.
Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras. Typewriters disappear, but not typing. And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.
We call something obsolete when an innovation has made it useless. But does that really happen? The vacuum cleaner did not make the broom useless. The automobile did not make the bicycle useless. The airliner did not make the passenger train useless. In fact in all three cases, the older technology was superior in some important respects—explaining its survival.
Obsolescence is real, but marketing distorts and exaggerates it. It’s good business to claim that your product will make its predecessors obsolete. Marketers tell consumers that a product isn’t just useful or different, it’s also existentially better. Companies tell investors that their innovations will not just join existing markets, but create whole new ones. Much of innovation has less to do with serving needs than with creating new demands, and less to do with solving problems than with generating markets.
These tendencies impart a high-tech bias in innovation. The notion of obsolescence protects this bias. We are sold futures in which high-tech innovations deliver us from our problems. These enticing visions are necessary if we are to be persuaded that what we have now is obsolete.
For example, the high-tech self-driving car futures that we have all seen are so attractive—so much safer, more convenient, and exciting—that we will even consider starting down the endless trail of consumption and investment that it would take to get there. No one will spend a fortune on marketing a future in which we solve our problems with what we have now, but the fact is that we don’t need a high-tech driverless future to deliver us from our problems. We just need a future in which we can drive less, while meeting our wants and needs. We already have everything we need to do it. Liveable density, walkability, cycling, and basic transit systems, augmented by high tech wherever helpful, can do much more for us now than the tech utopians promise they can do for us decades from now—if we will only buy enough of their products.
I don’t know what will be obsolete in fifty years, but high tech devices will not automatically make their low-tech equivalents obsolete. We may even see obsolescence in reverse, as we rediscover the unmatched performance of supposedly obsolete low-tech devices, such as bicycles, and adopt innovations that defy the super-high-tech, high-consumption visions, such as dockless scooters. Or seen another way, maybe some distracting superstitions will be obsolete: the notion that high tech is always better than low tech, or that the solution to consumerism is more consumerism. We have a wide spectrum of technologies to choose from, from zero tech to super high tech. Too often we rule out most of this spectrum before even taking a look. Over the next fifty years, I hope we rediscover the whole spectrum. It’s the only way we can be sure we choose wisely.
“Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras.”
Professor, History, Drexel University, and co-editor of History & Technology
If I’m trying to think about the historical origins and impacts of technology—about how human-made things come and go in human cultures—obsolescence seems like the wrong way to look at it. I think it feeds into our impulse to imagine that technologies come into being as freestanding material artefacts, satisfying some singular human need or desire, and then disappear, as if erased, when that need or desire ceases. I think it encourages us analytically to extract technologies from the worlds that make them, and which they make. Instead, if I want to think hard about significant technological changes that will likely come about in the next five decades, I’d focus not on technologies that might or might not disappear, but perhaps on how patterns of access to technologies might change. That is: I think if we frame our questions with more relational, more explicitly power-focused terms (like access, or control, or risk) we’ll understand more about changing human engagements with technology—past or future.
For example, 50 years from now humans as a species will have clean water and fresh food, but fewer members of the species (to choose a deliberately cold locution) will be able to afford these necessities as the resources required to produce and transport them become more costly with ecosystem loss, the rapid growth of refugee populations, and attendant global-scale economic crises. Or, we could consider that some people in some places will still be using fossil-furled air travel, short-lived electronic devices, and things made of cheap plastic in fifty years. But coastal settlements, agricultural economies, and the functionality of entire poorer nations that cannot sustain themselves amid rising oceans and extreme weather events will be gone. These are the instances of obsolescence that the most deeply critical prognostication about technology reveals.
In the United States, as wealth becomes ever more concentrated and market logics ever stronger, the country’s already low expenditure on widely distributed public goods like mass transit will shrink, so it wouldn’t be entirely misleading simply to answer this question with “city busses and subways.” As technologies not predicated on the efficient channelling of wealth upward, I predict that mass transit systems will soon lose whatever purchase they still have on American policy makers, planners and engineers—perhaps as privately owned driverless cars gain their purchase on those imaginations. But still, I think the temptation to think of technologies as having lifespans gets us into trouble because we are so habituated to picturing invention, innovation, and production (and obsolescence) as easily tracked, context-less processes experienced the same way by all people everywhere…exactly as industrial capitalism requires in order to keep its undeserved reputation as a beneficent source of universal material abundance. And that’s why I’m not a big fan of emphasising firsts and bests in our historical thinking about technology, nor, as this question about the future elicits, lasts and losts.
“In the United States, as wealth becomes ever more concentrated and market logics ever stronger, the country’s already low expenditure on widely distributed public goods like mass transit will shrink, so it wouldn’t be entirely misleading simply to answer this question with ‘city busses and subways.’”
Professor of the History of Science and Technology and of Modern British History at King’s College London, and the author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (2019)
When we think about ‘technology’—a weird and wonderful, shape-shifting concept—we are quick to invoke ideas of time as a determinant. We expect some to become obsolete at some point, to come to an end, as they are replaced by new ones. This way of thinking is deeply ingrained. We think of particular historical times being characterised by particular machines or processes, and we imagine the future will be made anew by a few such machines and processes. The current favourite is something called AI. In this way of thinking some people are ‘ahead of their times’ while most of us, not having grasped the significance of what a few gurus claim to be the future, are of course ‘behind the times’.
But this still-dominant way of thinking is itself way behind the times. It’s a characteristically naïve, propagandistic way to talk about ‘technology’ which has been with us for a long time.
There are far better ways to think about the artefacts which are so central to our world. We might start with the argument that far from always replacing older types of things, new things often add to the old. We just have more of everything. We might also note that what we deem “old” things often change: they are both old and new. Similarly, lots of things we think of as new often contain very old elements. To be sure, certain things get less prevalent, though they sometimes reappear.
What then are the sorts of processes which make things disappear? It could be, for example, that spare parts, or fuels, are for some reason no longer available. It may be that something better comes along, and it is worthwhile stopping using the old machine and buying a new one. It may be that old machines simply break down, and cannot be replaced. Or it may be that certain kinds of machine or products are made illegal to own or produce. Thus there are few CFCs left in the world. Chemical weapons are much less prevalent than they were in the 1930s, say.
We might then ask what kinds of ‘technology’ might we want to be rid of in the next fifty years. Many would say any machine burning or using coal. To which others would add any machine using fossil fuels, and perhaps therefore most internal combustion engines. Note that we could, if we wished, get rid of all these things without introducing any novelties. We could extend the use of alternatives which already exist.
“Many would say any machine burning or using coal. To which others would add any machine using fossil fuels, and perhaps therefore most internal combustion engines.”
Assistant Professor, History, Rochester Institute of Technology
New technologies have typically supplemented, rather than replaced, old technologies, and people use both for different purposes. In the area of information and communication technologies, for example, the telegraph did not replace the postal system, and both had their different uses. Thus, newspapers used the telegraph to convey time-sensitive information, such as an election result, and the significantly cheaper mail for less time-sensitive material, such as a political commentary.
One notable exception to this observation is telegraphy: In 2006, Western Union sent the last commercial telegraph message in the United States, and since then, messages in Morse code have been mediated over the internet backbone.
Sure, over time, information technologies have changed, and sometimes significantly. Uses, purposes and conditions have evolved. For example, the US postal system primarily served as a news broadcasting medium in the early nineteenth century. Printers could send newspapers at a preferred rate, and in 1832, newspapers made up ninety-five percent of the weight of the mail and created only fifteen percent of revenue. The mail allowed information to circulate in the “savage woods,” as the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1831, and created what historian Richard John has called a national community of citizens debating the latest political issue. Mostly businesses sent the pricey letters that financed the circulation of newspapers.
Americans did not begin to regularly correspond with family and friends until the 1840s, when Congress significantly cut the postage for letters. They soon became avid letter-writers urgently awaiting notes from their loved ones, and in the process turned the postal system from a news broadcasting medium into something resembling a social network.
Two information and communication technologies that might be in for a change are television and radio. According to a Nielsen survey, millennials already spend half the time watching life TV compared to baby boomers, and two thirds listening to FM/AM radio. Historical precedent suggests that video and audio content will not become obsolete. But whether it will be delivered through podcast, streaming, or on-demand, how it will be paid for, who will view or listen to it, and when—all these questions remain open.
“Historical precedent suggests that video and audio content will not become obsolete.”
Associate Professor, History, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, whose research focuses on the history of technology and the social history of work and business, among other things
The obvious story of the last fifteen years has been the smartphone eating every other kind of consumer electronic device. So in all likelihood cameras, games consoles, traditional laptops, etc. will not be around for much longer. Within fifty years, however, I expect the smartphone itself to have been replaced by something else. Nobody knows what, but as watches and glasses are both socially acceptable items to wear it is understandable that designers have focused on them.
My nomination, though, is the neck tie. It’s been around for a lot longer than most consumer technologies, but I haven’t worn one in ten years and casual dress is increasingly accepted. As art historian Anne Hollander explained in her classic book Sex and Suits, the neck tie coupled with tailored suits got its start in the late 1700s. Ornate male clothes went out of fashion, and without the bulky codpiece men needed a stylishly phallic way to draw attention to their groins. I suspect that Donald Trump will be the final nail in its coffin, his overlong ties discrediting its connection to aggressively fragile masculinity just as Hitler made obsolete the toothbrush moustache.
Featured image: Illustration: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo)