All technology is doomed to become redundant at some point, but the speed at which obsolescence is conferred upon our gadgets is increasing. Many of us will have a box or a bag containing dozens of old chargers or power supplies for items that, for whatever reason, no longer operate, and rummaging through it is like a trip down short-term memory lane: chargers for Nokia phones and out-moded sat-navs, mini USB cables and all manner of redundant adapters to connect disparate things together: all useless, all utterly dispensable.
A lot of this redundancy is hurried through by technology firms eager to sell us the next big thing; software and hardware upgrades snap at each other’s heels, promising better quality or better performance. This can be infuriating – not least because it’s hard to tell how much the acceleration of obsolescence is benefiting us. During the depression of the 1930s, US writer Bernard London wrote eloquently about how consumer products were lasting too long to sustain any kind of economic growth, but while there’s no doubt that planned obsolescence keeps the economy revolving, the amount of electronic waste it creates is nothing short of astounding.
We’ve put together a list of items that are staring down the barrel to some extent, but it should be remembered that it’s a pretty long barrel. People interested in technology will invariably overstate the speed at which that technology is dying out; only 15 per cent of us are early adopters and a good 60 per cent are happy to make do with existing technology for years on end. Notices of their death have been widely circulated, but fax machines, 35mm film, pagers, dial-up internet and Windows XP won’t go to their graves without a hell of a fight.
The home landline
A recent survey found that more than one in three Londoners don’t know their home telephone number. Forty per cent of them don’t answer it when it rings and half of them only have one because they’re forced to as part of a broadband package. The rise of the mobile phone has caused us to associate phone numbers with people rather than static locations; as a result, competitive mobile pricing and apps such as Skype have left the landline with few functions other than to make the occasional free call to an 0800 number, famously “chargeable from mobiles”. But not for much longer. 0800, 0808 and 116 calls will finally become free from mobile networks in June, perhaps removing the last raison d’etre of the home landline.
The remote control
Will 2015 see the remote control finally drawing its pension? The “Lazy Bones”, a remote control attached to the TV by means of a long cable, became the first consumer remote control 65 years ago, and today our home entertainment is still largely directed by these infuriating lumps of plastic. We actively yearn for their obsolescence; the complex ones are inoperable without a short training course, while the simple ones (take a bow, Apple TV) turn a relatively simple task into a mammoth act of on-screen navigation. Towards the end of his life, Steve Jobs famously claimed to have “cracked it” with the idea of voice-controlled television, but voice-control technology still has its inherent limitations and accompanying frustrations. While the technologically adventurous are exploring remote control via smartphones or gestures, the rest of us are still delving down the side of that sofa cushion.
The standalone sat-nav
The gadget that elicited gasps of wide-eyed wonder only a decade ago is continuing a slow slide towards obsolescence, its functionality absorbed into smartphones and car dashboards. In 2011 the standalone sat-nav or personal navigation device (PND) was already being described as being “as dead as the fax machine”, but the likes of TomTom and Garmin are still hanging on in there, either by building alliances with industry giants (Apple’s iOS navigation is powered by TomTom) or innovating in order to demonstrate the drawbacks of small smartphone screens (Garmin’s HUD projects directions onto the windscreen.) Of course, GPS tech moves from strength to strength, incorporated into fitness devices and wearables, but the one-trick PND is surely done for, its smartphone successor effortlessly updating maps without even being asked to.
Anyone under the age of 20 will see phone boxes as an curious anachronism. They’ve never queued up outside one with a fistful of 10p pieces – and nor will they; these days, with mobile phones welded to our hips, we simply have no need for them – and even if we did, in an emergency, having lost our phone, all our phone numbers would be lost, too. There’s been a 93 per cent decline in payphone usage since 2007, with fewer than 6 per cent of British adults having used one in the past 12 months, each box handling less than one call a day on average and 71 per cent of boxes failing to cover their costs. Little wonder that their removal is being accelerated by BT – although local councils and charities can “adopt a kiosk” for the nominal sum of £1, and if you fancied buying a classic red box (the K6 designed by Sir Gilbert Scott), you can snap one up for £2,250 (plus delivery).
DVD and Blu-ray
Our video-collecting habit began with the VHS cassette, but is almost certain to end with Blu-ray. The shift is tied to our changing attitudes towards ownership of media; most people will be happy to give up ownership of physical media in favour of on-demand streaming services such as Netflix, and equally happy to sacrifice the quality benefits that shiny discs offer. 2014 saw the announcement of a 4K Blu-ray standard, but technology firms will have a hard time persuading us that buying 4K hardware and 4K discs will offer any benefits unless our TV is the size of an entire living-room wall. AV purists will, naturally, continue to seek the ultimate cinematic experience at home, but the numbers predicted in a recent study by PwC are eye-opening: revenues from streaming media will exceed physical sales by 2016, and even exceed box-office revenue in 2017. The only question is whether the broadband infrastructure can handle the load.
The alarm clock
In surveys taken to find out the things that smartphones have made redundant, the alarm clock invariably comes at the top of the list; an OFCOM survey recently found that 50 per cent of us use our phones as an alarm, and with nearly all of us requiring a piercing sound at some point in the day to shake us out of our reverie, that’s a hell of a lot of alarm clocks gathering dust. Watches haven’t suffered as much – despite losing their status as our favoured timepiece – because they serve some aesthetic purpose, but the same can’t be said of the alarm clock. If you fancy a laugh, check out the range of alarm clock apps on Google Play or the App Store, that promise an exciting new take on the process of waking up. Really?
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