Technological Obsolescence

Essay by Jonathan Coopersmith: “In addition to killing over a million Americans, Covid-19 revealed embarrassing failures of local, state, and national public health systems to accurately and effectively collect, transmit, and process information. To some critics and reporters, the visible and easily understood face of those failures was the continued use of fax machines.

In reality, the critics were attacking the symptom, not the problem. Instead of “why were people still using fax machines?,” the better question was “what factors made fax machines more attractive than more capable technologies?” Those answers provide a better window into the complex, evolving world of technological obsolescence, a key component of our modern world—and on a smaller scale, provide a template to decide whether the NAE and other organizations should retain their fax machines.

The marketing dictionary of Monash University Business School defines technological obsolescence as “when a technical product or service is no longer needed or wanted even though it could still be in working order.” Significantly, the source is a business school, which implies strong economic and social factors in decision making about technology.  

Determining technological obsolescence depends not just on creators and promoters of new technologies but also on users, providers, funders, accountants, managers, standards setters—and, most importantly, competing needs and options. In short, it’s complicated.  

Like most aspects of technology, perspectives on obsolescence depend on your position. If existing technology meets your needs, upgrading may not seem worth the resources needed (e.g., for purchase and training). If, on the other hand, your firm or organization depends on income from providing, installing, servicing, training, advising, or otherwise benefiting from a new technology, not upgrading could jeopardize your future, especially in a very competitive market. And if you cannot find the resources to upgrade, you—and your users—may incur both visible and invisible costs…(More)”.