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Obsolescence and Easter thoughts from a quincado by Katia Elkaim

Yesterday, in a great moment of questioning, while getting rid of kilos of objects accumulated during the last twenty years, I wondered about the notion of obsolescence. I had in front of me piles of CDs and DVDs but also, and especially, a few boxes of CD-ROMs, and I wondered if there was a collectors' market for these glorious games of yesteryear - less than thirty years old anyway - of which there are now multiple versions on more modern media.

The answer is no...

Second hand websites are flooded with such items at prices lower than the cost of shipping them.

I saw no other solution than to create trash or decorate my fruit trees with silver discs.

So of course, I railed against the obsolescence of things, cursing the world and the firms that engage in the exercise of programming the lifespan of their technological inventions.

Only, on second thought, I realized that my mood swing was a bit simple, even simplistic.

And I wanted to know more.

First of all, what are we talking about?

An object can be obsolete for different reasons: Its performance or its technical utility can be limited for one reason or another, making it difficult or impossible to use, or, while being in perfect working condition, it ceases to be attractive for the consumer (my magnificent Myst CD-Rom).

Incidentally, this discussion also reminded me of another debate I was having with a dear friend, about 50-year-old women. I won't tell you the details because I would also have to share with you the excellent Barolo that accompanied our conversation and the description of the crumpled napkins on the table next to the bowl of hummus that was a little dry at the edges at the end of the evening.

France, champion in all categories of regulatory legislation in technological matters, was obviously one of the first countries, if not the first, to adopt a law prohibiting programmed obsolescence.

However, it was necessary to define what was forbidden: the ADEME (Agency for the Environment and Energy Management), a French public institution founded in 1991, limits the notion to any strategy by which a product would see its normative duration knowingly reduced from its conception, in order to restrict its duration of use for economic model reasons.

The definition does not include the fact that a consumer would lose interest in an object in perfect working order, just because there are newer versions on the market, nor does it confuse with the functional life that makes everything and all of us finished.

The spark that set the toner fire was the case of chip printer ink cartridges that hindered their use if refilled, once empty. The European Union took up the issue and banned the process.

The irony of this story is that the very idea of programmed obsolescence was born in the 1930s to get the economy going again. Indeed, Bernard London in his "Ending the depression through planned obsolescence" regretted that people use their objects too long, asking governments to encourage people to consume more by reducing the lifespan.

Brooks Steven, in the 50s, popularized the notion of obsolescence through disinterest, proposing a model of business growth through the popularization of novelty. In other words, something continues to be perfectly functional, but it is no longer interesting, supplanted by an innovation. The quincado laughs with a bit of Schadenfreude, thinking that every novelty will eventually be outdated, even though it doesn't help at the time.

Today, overconsumption is environmentally lethal. The observation is unanimous.

As far as food is concerned, let's already make the difference between the "best before" date, which means that the food is still consumable with just a risk of having a decrease of its organoleptic properties, and the real " consume by " date, beyond which, for health reasons, it is not recommended to eat.

If it is easy to agree to forbid the manipulation of an object to make it irreparable or unusable within a programmed period of time, the reflection seems to me to have to be more nuanced when it comes to disinterest. Humans have never invented so quickly. This unprecedented creative speed makes things old before they are old. Holding back or forbidding humans to create is a serious act that must be weighed against the environmental or ethical interests to be protected.

I was born in the era of Pollux that I watched in black and white by changing one of the three available channels by pressing with my little finger a rather long button on the television set.

Today, my CD-ROMs of Myst and its sequel are useless and I don't know anymore how to read the numerous diskettes stored in an envelope.

Preventing humans from imagining and dreaming better is a lost war. Educating the consumer remains the only way to go with a reality that is all the more vivid in these times of pandemic, that of the need to consume to allow others to just eat.

On second thoughts, I'll keep my CD-ROMs and wait until they reach their fifties, an age when madness is allowed without constraint, an age of newfound freedom before the next decade when, as a collector, they will become even more valuable.

Photo by Rachel Claire

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