Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
New pieces of technology have an infuriating habit of swiftly becoming old pieces of technology. This is a process that is as much attributable to the advance of time as it is to the market forces that are always presenting a newer (and of course “improved”) item for sale. While many a piece of slightly-out-of-date technology will continue to work quite decently if cared for reasonably well (consider the lifespan of a vehicle) for many other pieces of technology (particularly of the consumer electronics variety) this is not the case. The desire to repair and maintain an older device is further complicated by shifts that render important parts of those devices obsolete (floppy disks, for example).
The speed with which a piece of new technology becomes a piece of old technology is an important if often overlooked element of a new device. After all, when a new product is launched it would arguably be a rather poor marketing strategy for the advertisements to declare that it will lose its luster long before it actually ceases to function. Yet the way that most people in a consumer oriented society interact with new technological advances tends to be through the gleeful frame of the newness (they call it “innovation”) that drives much of the technology sector. Whether it be the latest excitement shrouded product launch from a major tech firm (think of those Apple launches), the eagerly awaited unveiling of the next model of a gaming console, or the annual shattering of the floodgates to let forth the a surge of new devices (as occurs at the International Consumer Electronics Show) – technological society constantly confronts us with the new. The old devices, the question of the old devices, and contemplation of what happens when the new devices become the old devices, is seldom a focus of discussion amongst the cavalcade of newness.
Thinking in terms of new technology is worthwhile and can provide for a clear confrontational moment with a new technology as it is being unveiled. By challenging a technology in its shining moment of newness it becomes easy to dent the shimmering façade and wipe away some of the glitter to reveal just how little about a given device is actually new. In his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century the theorist Neil Postman developed a series of six questions to ask of new technologies, questions that aimed to dispel the aura of “new” (which rhymes with “oooo” for a reason). Postman’s questions are as follow (italics in original text):
1. “What is the problem to which this technology is the solutions?” 
2. “Whose problem is it?” 
3. “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?” 
4. “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?” 
5. “What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?” 
6. “What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?” 
7. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?
While Postman’s six questions remain a valuable tool in thinking about new technology (and the seventh question raises another important [if playfully put] point). A discomforting element remains present in Postman’s questions, which is largely a result of the focus on “the new” which appears throughout Postman’s questions. Though it is not immediately apparent, a component that is missing from Postman’s questions is a focus on “the old” or even a recognition of what occurs when these “new technologies” being questioned become “old technologies.” It may seem that considerations of old technologies should be considered separately from questions regarding new technology; however, new and old technologies are linked so closely that to focus upon “the new” whilst avoiding “the old” is to miss out on a key component of new technologies.
When a piece of technology (particularly a piece of consumer electronics) is deemed old, or out of date, its fate is often similar to that of many items considered to have lost their worth. In many cases the item is thrown unceremoniously into the rubbish bin to be taken to the landfill along with the other garbage, while in other cases a person may take it upon themselves to ensure that the device is taken to a proper facility for recycling e-waste. In the case of the landfill these old technologies will take on a new life as their chemical components slowly (very slowly) break down leeching their toxic make-up into the ground; while in the case of recycling many of the devices wind up either packed away in massive shipping containers (out of sight is out of mind) or end up being transported to developing nations where workers in unsafe conditions attempt to salvage the little of worth from these “recycled” technologies. In other words, once a new technology becomes an old technology and that old technology gets discarded, there are real consequences to consider. Even if the person who enjoyed the technology while it was new is not directly impacted by the degradation of the device once it is discarded.
These dangers and consequences of the afterlife of technology need to be fore grounded in the moment when a technology is new. While questions of waste may fall within Postman’s third and fourth questions, a device’s afterlife remains a matter deserving of special consideration as it has special consequences. Furthermore e-waste is a problem that needs to be handled outside of Postman’s other considerations of problems and solutions – as e-waste is problem that emerges from all new technologies. Likewise the matter of waste is separate from the seventh question as that question comments upon the fragility of consumer technologies and seems to emphasize devices that are truly broken (“hit with a rock”) and it seems difficult to argue for the continued utility of something once it has been smashed. Indeed, in considerations of new technologies another question (an eighth question) needs to be added to Postman’s series:
8. What will happen and who will be impacted by this piece of new technology once it becomes a piece of old technology?
Beyond providing an opening for questions regarding planned obsolescence, this eighth question retrains the focus on the mountain of e-waste piling up in the rearview mirror as we speed ever more swiftly down the high tech motorway. When a person buys a new device it is worth pondering what will become of this device when it is discarded, and likewise it is worth considering what will happen to current devices that have been made “old” by the newer model. Yet this question should not be foisted solely upon the individual consumer but should be directed (like all of the above mentioned questions) at the sector that is frantically flooding the market with new devices. Do those creating these devices have a plan for these devices once they are rendered obsolete? Those who have designed, marketed, and sold a device filled with hazardous materials (once they begin to break down) have a responsibility to ensure that these can be disposed of without creating harm. Though, the eighth question should not glibly accept “they are recycled” as an answer, as this is too often a creative way of saying “the problem is transported out of sight.” Waste is a problem inherent to new technologies, though it is often put off as really being a question for old technologies, but allowing this distance hides the fact that a devices death should be considered in its creation.
There can be something very exciting about shiny new devices, but this excitement and newness is fleeting. Unfortunately, e-waste has a tendency to linger long after the initial excitement has vanished.
On Related Topics
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century (Vintage Books, 2000).