You know it’s time to update your home technology when your six-year-old complains there’s not enough hard drive space to support his online gaming habit. Our computer’s not even that old. By contrast, the microwave oven is much older, but still fills our needs perfectly. Same with the toaster, the air conditioner, and our mailman.
I smell a conspiracy. It’s called “planned obsolescence,” defined by Wikipedia as “the conscious decision on the part of an agency to produce a consumer product that will become obsolete and/or non-functional in a defined time frame.” In certain circles it’s also called “getting screwed by The Man.”
We have one desktop computer in our home, but holding down the concrete in our basement are two Toshiba laptops donated by my parents, who buy new computers the way some people change underwear.
Inspired by my son’s needs, I took the laptops to my local computer technician, who quickly pronounced the oldest one, a heavy ten year-old Toshiba, a “good doorstop.” I gave it to my twin three year olds, who intrinsically know the difference between cheap toys and expensive appliances when it comes to attractive playthings.
The newer laptop, from 1998, had more promise, though it was a bit of a challenge. The computer rejected Windows XP like a toddler spitting out broccoli rabe. And my dreams of wireless computing with this laptop went up in smoke when I was informed my hardware couldn’t support it. So we basically ripped out the guts, installed Windows SE and stuffed the thing like a Thanksgiving turkey with all the memory it could handle.
With planned obsolescence all the rage in Silicon Valley, and myriad electronic products now available, is it possible for anyone to keep up with technology? Sadly, we try, and leave a Circuit City-themed wasteland in our wake. While cleaning out my basement, I found a cassette walkman and portable CD player, both long since replaced by my iPod. Somewhere underneath my Neil Diamond LP collection, I found a Palm Pilot so antiquated it might as well have contained Abraham Lincoln’s email address (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Next to it, I found several cameras that relied on, of all things, film! Take a picture of children nowadays, and they’ll instinctively say, “let me see it!” Explain that the camera is not digital and that developing will take several days, and you’ll get a look of utter confusion.
We can’t help ogling shiny new technology, rationalizing it’ll simplify our lives, even when evidence points to the contrary. Even with the assistance of BlackBerrys, cellphones, PDAs, email, MP3s, and NetFlix, our home and work lives are still more complicated and hectic than ever. And we have more gadgets dangling from our belts than Batman.
Jumping on the technology bandwagon, my local commuter train station now has free wireless connectivity and an impressive computer for patron use, but do you know what? The most appreciated items are still the mediocre coffee, the free book exchange, and the guy selling newspapers and designer handbags who doesn’t take credit cards. When I bring my children to the station, they squeal with delight not at any modern doodads, but at the big shiny trains and their handsomely-attired conductors, much the same as kids have done for decades. Even in this age of information, some institutions transcend obsolescence.
So if you feel left behind as I do when I need my first-grader to explain to me the complex workings of the TiVo remote, don’t feel bad. As Mick Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” In fact, he said it last night, after I downloaded him from iTunes.