Canned obsolescence

Canned obsolescence: By Aaron Weiss. We only think old computers are useless -- that's what the industry wants us to think

Published June 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Oy, Joe DiMaggio, even William Gibson has been had. Recently, in between nacho crunches, I stopped channel surfing long enough to hear some pontification by the thoughtful Mr. Gibson on the mill of technology. While driving home with his new computer, opined the respected futurist author, he could feel it "obsolescing" right there in the box.

Yes, well, I could feel my heart obsolesce right there in my chest. The Great Myth -- the "myth of obsolescence" -- had most certainly won the game, cashed in its prize and gone to Disneyland.

The problem, of course, with selling any product is selling it again. And again. Preferably to the same person, everywhere. Years ago, enduring another voluntary crunching stint in front of the telly, I came across a comedian who posited that Arm & Hammer Baking Soda had a stroke of boardroom genius when they hit upon the idea of selling their powder for freshening up garbage-can odors: "Buy Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and throw it in the garbage." That is funny, and it has stuck with me ever since. Clearly there is something to be learned on any channel.

Of course, computers don't cost 70 cents a box like baking soda, but they have a far more impressive role model: Detroit. In what has been probably the most successful campaign of psychological programming-cum-advertising, the vast majority of eligible auto consumers actually want to repurchase essentially the same item every four years, at a cold $20,000 a pop -- no matter that the initial purchase alone could probably have remained useful for a decade. The PC industry has had an excellent teacher.

So it's an accepted fact these days that computers grow obsolete nearly immediately. Everyone knows it and everyone repeats it -- even William Gibson. We're a congregation of apostles passing on the Truth. Shills? Why no, our motivation is a sense of awe -- in ourselves, in our technologies, pitchmen blinded by species self-admiration. A triumph of science? More like fantasy -- we've become Madison Avenue's wet dream.

I've owned three computers in the last four years. That doesn't mean I'm rich or bitter or even unusual, simply an "enthusiast" (i.e. geek). Yet it's striking that each one -- a 486/80, a Cyrix P150 and a Pentium II/300 -- performs about 90 percent of the same tasks quite acceptably. We're really splitting hairs as a race when we argue that launching Netscape in two seconds vs. eight seconds is worth another $1,800. Will a 600 mhz Pentium III "Clackamas" launch Netscape in one second? Half a second? Microsoft Word was slower to launch on the 486 but only marginally slower to operate than on the Pentium II. I'm not arguing that the PII isn't much faster percentage-wise -- of course it is; any benchmark proves that -- but how has it rendered a computer four years older obsolete? It hasn't, in 90 percent of the activities most consumers want from the computer.

And that's the key, as far as the myth of obsolescence is concerned. Most consumers don't live on the cutting, bleeding edge of technology applications -- they don't need to or even want to. Yet the industry has both convinced and forced us to buy generally overpowered machines on the basic notion of "progress." Yes, forced.

Can you tell me where to buy a new 486/66 portable? A fool, am I. Computer prices are free-falling, we say, dragged down by the recent craze for the sub-$1,000 PC. But doesn't this become irrelevant when we're still purchasing a rototiller to trim some hedges? The fact is, if the price plummet was so great for consumers, we could walk into the shop and grab a nifty new 486 laptop for $300. If I'm going to traipse around with a Pentium 120 for basic word processing, why not drive a fire truck too, to heck with this obsolete Toyota! The new $300 486 is not for sale.

"Less computer for less" -- they left this slogan out of the campaign. In a society of more, who would want to buy less? Stock some new, cheap, truly low-end PCs and there will be plenty of sales on less.

Computer consumption is allegedly cyclical, but cynical is more like it. After all, if computers truly became obsolete so quickly, there would be no market at all. We consumers would never bite if our investment so obviously went into the trash can, baking soda excepted. The challenge: Keep us going for the bait while still believing in (and evangelizing) the obsolescence myth. Professor Ford once again has the answer and it's one simple word, an adjective in fact: incremental.

Like a desperately lonely kitten, we're strung along with minor improvements in each subsystem: CPU speeds increase, bus interfaces change, RAM access times decrease, cache memory becomes integrated. Right now we're supposed to be panting for the BX chipset with its 50 mhz PCI bus, since we've been stuck with 33 mhz for so interminably long. Any benchmark junkie can show you that each of these innovations yields a few extra percentage points of speed. Although necessary and interesting within the circles of developers and enthusiasts, these evolutions are too often pushed at the consumer as vital advances in the field -- Bearers of Obsolescence.

Each little step keeps us psychologically hooked, but the hope is that we'll throw out the entire baby with each refill of bath water. A little clarity shows us that several years can easily go by before there has been enough evolution to truly require conceiving a new baby. The new-model PCI SCSI card I purchased last month would've performed just as happily four years ago on a PCI 486. Most PCs have ISA sound cards that would work well with PCs ranging from the early '90s to now. The basic IDE/ATA standard has been supported for years with additional tweaks only necessary for those interested in number crunching, meaning that most hard drives and CD-ROM drives in PCs five years ago would still perform quite adequately in a PC today. Every time we're convinced to buy a new computer, we're actually buying 80 percent of the same components we already own all over again.

It all boils down to an absurdly simple truth: With only a few strategic upgrades, the computer we bought five years ago can probably meet many of our needs today, and the computer we buy today can meet most of our needs five years from now.

This is not a Kaczynski-style championing of typewriters and well water. I have no gripe with the club of interested and inclined technophiles (I'm a debt-carrying member!) . Yet the myth of obsolescence is no victimless rumor when millions of sales dollars are leveraged on the hoodwinking of consumers from families to businesses for whom "productivity" need not equal "P233." Worst of all, we're all the ones spreading it.

By Aaron Weiss

Aaron Weiss writes for food, if that's what it takes. Frequently, it does.

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