Back when I was eight years old, my family
owned one of the first "high-end" commercially available
videocassette recorders (VCR's) for the home, a Sony Betamax
machine could tape for one hour and cost $1,200
($4,600 in today's money).
A year later, my father bought the SL-8200 which
taped two hours.
Two years later, he owned the very first cassette Walkman
model sold in the United States at a price tag of $150
Skip ahead twenty years.
By the late 1990's, VCR's had become widespread.
Purchase prices had sunk as low as $50 and the
machines could tape more than 10 hours.
Walkmans and their clones were equally as ubiquitous
and priced as low as $20.
Products have become cheaper as their core
technologies have come down in price.
They're also cheaper because they're made with
Those ancient Betamax machines now lie in the bottom
of a closet in my father's house, but I'd warrant that if
the tape heads were dusted off and the machines connected to
a television set, they would still work.
Walkman from 1980 broke decades ago after all the use I put
However, newer Walkmans would've broken in a much shorter
time frame with far less use.
We can observe the same effect of
obsolescence with almost anything:
television sets, cars, bicycles, computers, printers.
Stuff is manufactured cheaply, increasingly in
undeveloped countries, with the intention that when any of
it shows signs of defect, it's to be dumped and a new one
Wirth's Law states that software gets slower faster than
hardware gets faster.
In other words, computers, through the interaction of
software with hardware, are designed from the very beginning
to be obsolescent.
Obsolescence, as I discuss it here, is not
a natural state of the universe.
It's a result of society changing at rates
unimaginable in previous times in history.
The last completed century, the twentieth, has
brought about more population growth, more technological
growth, more travel, more pretty much of anything, than the
aggregate totals of all those things from the beginning of
time through the end of the nineteenth century.
Our culture of consumption has only
further accelerated obsolescence.
When I was six or seven years out of university,
clothes from my university days still hung in my closets
and, if in decent condition, continued to be worn.
I was oblivious that fashion had dated those
garments, and when I went out in them, those with more
discerning fashion senses pointed out that those clothes
from another era made me look old.
It didn't matter that the clothes were in fine
Many of us live right in the heart of
can't afford or be bothered to constantly upgrade.
Our home interiors still resemble 1985.
We haven't got a touch iPod or Bluetooth cellular
We refuse to fork out unnecessary expenditure on a plasma or
flat screen television.
Surrounded by so much obsolescence, we
have to ask ourselves a very significant question:
Are we obsolescent?
Not from a metaphysical frame -- i.e. is the human
I mean it literally.
Is each of us, as individuals, on the road to
Try to imagine what it was like living
five hundred years ago.
If you were a silversmith, farmer, weaver, baker,
artisan, or bricklayer, you performed your job much like
your father did before you.
Innovations came about, but there were relatively
few of them and they didn't come very often.
The skills you learned as a youthful apprentice
lasted you for a lifetime.
Then, life sped up.
The Industrial Revolution arrived.
People migrated from villages to the urban centers to
work in factories.
'Sped up' is only relative to the pace of life
today's standards, the speed the changes the Revolution
brought about was slow.
Skills people picked up in youth were still useful
for the rest of their lives.
Sometime in the early twentieth century,
this no longer held true.
People could not coast solely on what they picked up
as an apprentice.
Certainly after World War II, no one would argue that
job skills lasted a lifetime.
I read in a trade magazine several years ago that
skills people were learning in college were probably half
devalued by the time the student graduated.
That was, I'm sure, an exaggeration, but not by much.
At least my
university was realistic about it all.
Way back in 1986 in the student prospectus, they said
that most of us would wind up with jobs that didn't then
you imagine a university making that claim back in 1886?
A small percentage of us currently
don't have to do much to adapt.
If you worked on Wall Street and sold bonds two
decades ago, you can now sell derivatives.
If you're a doctor and recommended Pravachol to
high-cholesterol suffers in the early 90's, you could
recommend them Lipitor in the 2000's.
A good salesman can sell anything, as they say.
These aren't great examples, because the purveyors on
Wall Street and doctors have always been held in a certain
awe by the masses.
Even if large numbers among them possess mediocre
skills, they can earn undeserved respect.
Others have adapted, ultra successfully, by moving
their skills from a small stage in the previous era to the
world stage in the global one.
A man with the skills to become a successful
multimillion dollar entrepreneur in the 1980's could utilize
most of those same skills, with the use of the internet and
commonplace globalization, to become a multibillion dollar
entrepreneur in the 2010's -- and in less time, too.
Most of us aren't doctors or Wall Street
shills or multimillion- or multibillion dollar
We may start our own small companies.
Or even more likely, we're employees of someone
If someone is an average run-of-the-mill
employee of Chrysler or GM, what are they going to do when
those companies go bankrupt or phase out their jobs from
Simply being a dutiful employee is not enough.
The corporate heads will look at the profit and loss
Unless you're personally responsible for bringing in
big contracts for your company, your job will get slashed
along the bottom line just like the people who worked a lot
less than you did.
It comes down to one thing and one thing only:
either you're invaluable or you're not.
And though I agree with the notion that
anyone in any job should put forward his best efforts,
the best probably isn't good enough to stave off
How many of us are indispensible to our
If an organization is smart, none of us.
A company placing its entire success on the back of
one person is courting disaster.
Should that person leave for greener pastures or die
unexpectedly, where does that leave the company?
That said, there are still people in an organization
who punch beyond their weight class and losing these people,
even if not completely indispensible, would be a huge blow.
The company is willing to keep them on at huge
salaries, stock options, company cars, drugs, and
again, what percentage of all workers fall into this
category? If we
all put in twenty-four hour days, there are still only a few
who land in the invaluable category.
There's a lot of rhetoric from governments
about creating new jobs for the coming century as older jobs
become obsolescent or outsourced.
(Obsolescence and outsourcing equate to the same
thing, by the way, as far as a job holder is concerned).
I don't really believe the governments or their
corporate partners honestly care.
If a company could be completely automated, if all
living and breathing employees made redundant apart from a
few select managers, shareholders would be delighted.
Lower costs should mean higher profits.
And they will, up to the point that all
obsolescent employees are still able to get jobs.
If the long term goal of companies is to minimize
costs to the point where every job which can be automated
and outsourced is, what are all the average run-of-the-mill
people going to do to earn the money to buy any products?
It used to be that the portrait of a dismal future
had Orwellian overtones:
all of us were being watched by the government while
conducting our mindless jobs.
Sorry, that future is now.
The real future won't have us doing mindless jobs
when those mindless jobs can be automated or outsourced.
No one has given any serious thought to what most of
us will be doing in the real future.
In the industrialized world of the past,
only lower end jobs were made obsolete or outsourced.
Today, what were formerly seen as white collar jobs
are going the same route.
Routine programming tasks can be sent to India.
Legal research can be funneled out to lower-cost
countries, even if the actual briefs must be filed and
argued by lawyers legally allowed to practice in the
Medical professionals are not completely immune to
obsolescence either though they have been so far.
At some stage in the not-too-distant future, Western
insurance companies will wake up to the fact that it's
better for their bottom lines to let patients undergo costly
treatments, like a quadruple bypass, in countries like India
and Thailand. That
means less available work for Western doctors.
If you're mid- or even upper-level
management, see ya.
As the people you manage are made obsolescent, why
would the company still need you?
Enjoy the mediocre copper -- not golden -- parachute
you're offered and watch before you jump.
The parachute probably has holes in it.
Don't cry about it.
Don't write your representatives about it.
There's nothing they can do.
That's like asking someone who's rolled the boulder
down the hill to stop it.
The guys at the very top of the government put
together this global situation.
We live in a world of the hypocritical trade rules
they've designed, and they're designed to be inconsistent.
These guys don't give a hoot if you're the one
working on the assembly line to produce their vacuum cleaner
or if man in China is doing it . . . . or if a robot has
replaced the both of you.
The politicians' way of dealing with and personally
dodging obsolescence deserves a discussion of its own and is
Politicians, Masters of Defying Reality.
See you on the trash heap.