While clearing out my parent’s loft the other day I found some entirely forgotten boxes of my stuff. Stuff is really the only description here: two boxes containing a random collection of old birthday cards, letters, photographs, postcards, gig tickets and wristbands, and of course, old gadgets.
One gadget in particular caught my attention because it is just such a perfect example of what you could call ‘instant obsolescence’. It is a gadget designed to transfer MP3s to a MiniDisc player. I have no memory of ever buying this gadget, nor of ever using it, but for a while before I got my first iPod I was indeed a MiniDisc devotee. I still think the MiniDisc has a strange, slightly retro-Sci-Fi cool.
I’ve talked about technologies similar to this before. Transitional devices designed to bridge the gap between different generations of technology. Like the LiveScribe Echo pen, which enables digital capture of paper written notes — a device for which i have recently discovered a group of absolute devotees. This technology smooths the move from writing on paper to writing on digital surfaces — if we continue to use handwriting at all.
The difference between the LiveScribe Echo and this MiniDisc gadget is that the former is helping people to migrate from a technology embedded in our culture, that has hundreds of years of history behind it. I believe the digital pen is transitional technology but it probably has years of opportunity and use ahead. By contrast the MiniDisc barely achieved any kind of market outside the radio industry where it was used for both capturing audio and playing it back in studios before everything went digital. In my experience the only place you might still see a MiniDisc deck in use is in a radio studio.
Launching an accessory for such a transitional platform with a small user base is ambitious: you have to get it to market quickly and capture a large proportion of the users if you are to make a profit. If, of course, you realise that the market is transitional. Launching an accessory that explicitly acknowledges the coming supremacy of an alternative platform — in this case digital music — shows either a great degree of confidence in your ability to execute, or a total lack of vision for what is coming.
The former option is the most interesting because it says a lot about where we have got to in our ability to design, manufacture, and bring to market electronic goods. We can translate an idea into a product in a matter of months — maybe less — in order to service a market that only exists for a minimal period. Modern examples might be cases or docks for the latest generations of smartphones, always due to be superseded within a matter of months.
These products are almost instantly obsolescent, or at best move very quickly from being on the shelves of the shop to being in the car boot sale or on eBay. But companies can get them to market so quickly and with such practical margins that creating products of such fleeting value is clearly profitable.
This has consequences. The approach of built-in obsolescence for consumer goods enabled costs to fall for us as consumers but dramatically increased the cost of technology to the planet, increasing the rate at which we burned through our supply of fossil fuels. The chance to profit from instant obsolescence has further increased the rate at which we plough through these limited resources.