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Faded: Life On the Cusp of Obsolescence

As a civilization speeding headlong into uncharted terrains, we get our kicks staring out the window at all the outmoded stuff going out of focus in our collective rearview. We obsess over the newly obsolete, the antiques of recent history. We...

by Brian Anderson
Dec 28 2011, 9:32pm

As a civilization speeding headlong into uncharted terrains, we get our kicks staring out the window at all the outmoded stuff going out of focus in our collective rearview. We obsess over the newly obsolete, the antiques of recent history. We constantly eulogize all that's quickly becoming outmoded, or what's already dead and gone.

It’s every year around this time that a lot of these flame-outs are swept up in the obligatory spray of end-of-year lists and retrospectives. And yet for every cataclysmic, overnight death of a technology or service, a way or a hard fact of life, there are likely countless others just straddling the proverbial edge, teetering there on the cusp of a prolonged, whimpering obsolescence.

These doomed hangers-on are down but not completely out. But they are so obviously past their moment that at the mere glimpse of, say, a coin-operated street telephone that's not yet been snarfed of parts and that, you know, still makes calls, one can't help take pause and, should some civilian actually be using the thing, ogle and recollect a bygone era.

I won't try cataloguing everything on the brink. But I will try highlighting a few of those technologies, services, and nagging realities undergoing an extended heat death that all of us, as breathing humans, are likely contributing to, whether we like it or not.

CORRECTION FLUID

via JUNG von MATT

Paper is arguably the single biggest casualty of the information age. The last vestiges of printed communication stubbornly, if not commendably, persist, of course, and probably won't ever be wholly snuffed out. Still, it stands to reason that correction fluid – White Out, Liquid Paper, etc. – is in the throes of a protracted second-hand death.

True, as of 2005 this was a $120 million dollar industry. And who knew there were so many versions of the original Delete key (the first batch of "Mistake Out" was whipped and sold in 1956 by Bette Nesmith Graham, mother to one member of another mass-marketed product, The Monkees) to choose from today?

So can anyone tell me again why correction fluid is still a thing being sold?

[ ___________________ ] <— See that blank space right there? Originally I had it filled with these words: “Nope – probably no one can.” But then I “disappeared” them using the “Delete” key on my “computer.” Pure magic. And besides, when compelled to actually scribble stuff down we should be using pencils exclusively. Pencils are great, and typically come affixed to these incredible little things called “erasers.” Even more magical, mind-boggling stuff, I tell you.

Meanwhile, some of the world’s school children are still going bonkers and committing crimes after sniffing the other white stuff.

STREET PAYPHONES

Snarfed payphones in Arkansas, 2009 (via Payphone Project)

I recently passed someone on the street fumbling for what I could only assume was the "correct change" to dial out a call. Pausing in my tracks, I debated waiting it out and striking it up with the elder woman, huddled in one of those grated telecomm half-shells, after her exchange with whomever it was on the other end she was hoping to reach.

I had questions: How often do you make curbside coin calls? Do you not have a mobile phone? If not, why don’t you have one? Are you ringing some random street corner in America’s loneliest blown-out town just to share a moment with a complete stranger? Hell, how much does it even cost to do what you’re doing nowadays, anyway?

I was genuinely curious. The call lagged on, though, so before long, after snapping out of this ridiculous gawk, I was shuffling back down that major Brooklyn thoroughfare, a semi-smart phone pulsing twice in my pocket. Incoming text.

The rise of mobile everything, including free go-phones for an ever increasing portion of low income and homeless people (see: SafeLink Wireless, a "government supported program for income eligible households" provided by TracFone Wireless), has obviously dealt sidewalk payphoning a crushing blow. But then there is always inimitable cyberpunk (dude apparently hates that label) William Gibson, who notes how the gradual purging of street payphones from urban America has really only been part of a larger strategy to undercut burgeoning illicit drug markets.

You can still see coin-operated receivers all over certain dense, urban sprawls. But more often than not faceless street urchins have surgically pulverized and generally had their way with the things, maybe even to then sell the scrapped components for cash for rarity drugs, like correction fluid.

FOLDING MAPS

via Paper Pastries

I’m really not sure where I’m going with any of this. But just seconds ago, before eventually landing on the above image, I caught myself mistakenly googling “google.com/maps” rather than “google.com/images.” Therein lies the traditional folding map’s crisis. I think.

This one is so inextricably bound with the fall of paper and the rise of mobile everything – in this case, global-positioning services – that you probably can’t not think of a foldable map as the non-existent instructional manual that came with the last bottle of correction fluid you bought.

It’s probably a shame. There is a certain romance to handling a worn, trusted road atlas or U.S.G.S. topographical map, and to charting on either a desired path, that you just don’t get from some automated navigator telling you that in another 1.5 miles you’re to hook a hard right. GPS isn’t sexy. GPS is not challenging. GPS is straight up boring. Where’s the risk? Right. There isn’t any.

But these physical cues are evaporating, if they haven’t dried out entirely. This is partly because of our need to get things – to perform tasks – quick and on the cheap, always quicker and cheaper, which in a lot of ways simply points back to an utter laziness as the wheel keeps churning us all headlong into strange unknowns. We’re occupying Google Maps, now. Or googling an #OccupyMap – anything, really, but hunching over an unwieldy, fine-print plan that no matter how righteous still takes up what feels like a bloody half-acre of shared space, making it a total pain in the ass simply to semi-properly fold back up, whether or not it revealed the way.

PRETTY MUCH EVERYTHING IRL

via University of Tokyo’s E-Skin Project

By this I mean real-time physical interactions: Boots on the ground. Political leaders actually declaring wars. Training people to actually fly manned combat operations halfway around the world. Our attitudes toward deep-space exploration, and essentially anything happening on Earth. Snail mail (maybe). Class reunions. Studying at university. Handshake drug deals (maybe). Losers hanging out. Dying.

I could go on, but I won’t. You get the idea. We’re islanding ourselves in an age of potential contacts and connections that stretch beyond infinite horizons.

But if there’s one hard truth, setting aside a) how certain things die unremembered and b) the sobering/liberating fact that one day you’ll just stop existing corporeally, it’s how behind everything there will always be dollar signs, or some trust-based value. Always.

So it’s the idea of people exchanging physical cash and coins for goods, dealmaking in a very literal sense, that could burn brightest of everything caught up in the long, whimpering descent. And what, if anything, emerges in place of this system very well may dictate brave new markets. Indeed, an expert on Big Data and networked-supercomputing recently told me that within about a decade all economies will be wholly digitized. After all, we may look back on 2011 as being, among other things, the year of the “the bitcoin collapse that never happened.”

What I think I’m getting at, here, is that doing any sort of business on the black market is about to get a lot weirder than it already is.

ODDITY examines strange and esoteric phenomena and events from the remote, uncanny corners of technology, science and history.

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Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @TheBAnderson

Top image via NASA
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Tech
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digital-urbanism
obsolete
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obsolescence
correction fluid
payphones