Jason Wilson, Jason Jacobs

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Obsolescence is most frequently talked about in relation to the history of technology. A still-common way of understanding modernity is as a linear succession of emerging technologies which supersede existing ones, and which are themselves, in time, made redundant. The cycle of novelty and obsolescence underpins a narrative including episodes of human invention, mastery and eventual technological failure. Nevertheless, it makes technologies themselves the subjects of history, rather than the human beings whose choices frame their contingent births, shapings, adoptions and uses. Many have pointed out the extent to which this simplifies history, but this has made precious little impact, if the way in which many writers treat digital communications technologies is any guide. Professional new media evangelists, including media and cultural theorists who subscribe to what Turner describes as an entrenched “digital orthodoxy”, are nowadays wont to describing mass media – including all broadcast and print media – as “heritage” media. This neat rhetorical trick confirms all remaining manifestations and uses of such media as remnants of the past in the present, as curiosities, even perhaps as impediments to the “imaginary futures” (Barbrook) regularly projected onto new technologies. On the other hand, similar assumptions underlie narratives of decline and decay which attach themselves to new media technologies. Thus we can understand laments for the lost qualities (and quality) of old media from writers such as Andrew Keen, which themselves shape self-interested pronouncements about the decadence of the new communications environment from the highest echelons of established media (Hartigan).

A history of scholarship from media historians has worked to try to nuance the contours of this oldest of modern stories, and to complicate the relationship between modernity, technological obsolescence, and social reality. Brian Winston’s work has shown how messy the business of invention and adoption is. Caroline Marvyn’s book When Old Technologies Were New showed how durable are the terms in which we are invited to link new technologies with progress. Lisa Gitelman’s Always Already New shows how complexly interweaved our understanding of media history is with our own media use. Collections like New Media, 1740-1915 and Residual Media have offered a number of theoretical critiques and case-studies which show the contemporary persistence of old media, and the recurrence of simplifying, totalising rhetorics of media history. More specifically, work like Sterne’s shows how contemplating obsolescence can give us a way of thinking about the downside of media change in terms of the problem of ecological damage in the form of e-waste. Most importantly for us, though, are those who use the category of obsolescence as a way of understanding that in the forward march of modernity, there are losers as well as winners. Watkins links technological obsolescence with the production of certain people, certain segments of the population as obsolescent. For him, obsolescent people can be understood as engaged in a “useless survival”, and are linked with obsolete technologies
Original languageEnglish
Article number170
Pages (from-to)1-2
Number of pages2
JournalM/C Journal
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


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