Obsolescence: Uncovering Values in Technology Use

Jina Huh, Mark S. Ackerman


Obsolescence in Conversation

Knick-knacks of uncertain use,
[Omitted for space]
Somber pictures and distant blues,
Faded pastels, hard cameos,
Phials still smelling of perfume,
Jewelry, rags, rattles, puppets,

What a great clutter in this chest!
All for sale. Accept my offer,
Reader. Perhaps these old things

Will move you to tears or laughter.
You’ll have to pay, and as for me,
I shall buy some nice fresh roses.
(Cros and Corbière)

Orlando, in his book Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination, interprets the listing of the objects in this sonnet as intensifying “the primary defunctionalization of the things” (18). Until line 5, the old objects in the chest seemed to bring good reminiscence. In line 6, on the contrary, these objects suddenly turn into “great clutter”, which needs to be sold in order to be replaced with “some nice fresh roses”. This is a representative example of how obsolescence is construed in our everyday lives. Obsolete objects bring memories, warmth, and nostalgia, yet we often view them as the defunctionalized, impractical, uncertain, or worthless that will eventually have to be replaced with the new.

When it comes to technological objects, functionality, efficiency, and usefulness are the central reasons for their existence. Accordingly, becoming obsolete poses a great challenge towards the reason for their existence, raising our perception about obsolete technology as a waste. Strasser (Strasser) wrote in the 1920s — “economic growth was fueled by what had once been understood as waste.” This notion carries over to today’s computing environment in which the high rate of machine turnover translates into tremendous profitability for the computing industries. Hence planned obsolescence, planning and engineering the obsolescence, became a long-established principle in American consumer economics (Sterne).

The ways in which computing devices are designed today are good resulting representations of planned obsolescence. A study in 2007 showed that American consumers use their phones for only 17.5 months before replacing them (U.S. Wireless Mobile Phone Evaluation Study), and worldwide sales of mobile phones are expected to exceed one billion by 2009 (Gartner). Huang and Truong called the trend of usage lifetime being much shorter than their functional lifetime the disposable technology paradigm.

As environmental sustainability became an important issue in our daily lives, the awareness of planned obsolescence and the disposable technology paradigm alarmed researchers to actively engage in the questions of supporting sustainability in computing devices. Because of the notion that obsolescence equals waste, the conversations in designing for sustainability have been based on the view that obsolescence is something that is problematic and need to be prevented. For example, sustainable interaction design (Blevis) suggested ways in which design can prolong the life cycle of the product in order to delay or prevent the product from becoming obsolete.

So far we have discussed how the notion of obsolescence is perceived in our everyday lives, what it means to the computing industry, and how it is utilized for economic profit or, in contrary, attempted to be prevented for environmental sustainability. Rather than viewing obsolescence as having negative power, however, we challenge the notion that obsolescence is worthless and furthermore discuss the social and individual values that were surfaced through a case study of a user community that maintained an obsolete machine for over nine years after the product’s discontinuation.

HP200LX User Community

HP200LX (LX) is a PDA introduced by HP in 1994. It is MS-DOS compatible and comes with 2 or 4 MB of memory including the RAM. Housed in a clamshell-style case, it comes with 640x200 monochrome display, QWERTY keyboard, serial port, and PCMCIA slot. A user claimed that an AA battery would run his LX for up to two weeks. The user community for the LX communicated and shared information through an email list.

The email list started in late 1996 and thrived until September 2008. By January of 2008, there were approximately 90,000 accumulated messages that were archived online since 1996. We sampled roughly 35,000 messages from the beginning of the archive, around discontinuation (November, 1999), and later in the archive, and analyzed using standard qualitative analysis through coding and probed for emerging patterns.

The LX was discontinued in 1999, officially making the LX to be obsolete. To the LX users, however, the LX was more effective than any other PDAs at the time. Because the LX was running DOS, it allowed the users to flexibly develop and share custom applications that fit their everyday practices. Besides, the LX users considered the LX useful due to it being lightweight and having long lasting battery life.

In the attempt to push back against the obsolescence of the machine, during the first few years after discontinuation, the LX user community was actively building resources that would help prolong the life of the rapidly aging LX. This included solutions in dealing with fixing and upgrading hardware and software, adding new features, and maintaining compatibility with the surrounding computing environment. For example, the members shared their know-hows on fixing broken hinges or finding the right memory card that communicated the best with the LX. As well, a user developed a do-it-yourself kit that allowed end users to install backlight to the LX, which was not an existing feature in the original LX.

Actively Participating in Building Up the Resources

Around the time the LX was discontinued, the LX community was pushing back against the notion of obsolescence that was given to the LX. The LX was still useful to them and they could not find the alternatives that would replace the kinds of functionalities and features that the LX provided. Accordingly, it was up to the members themselves to maintain the LX, which required active participation from the members.

The core members of the list shared the knowledge they had accumulated while using the LX. If a member asked a question to the email list, a variety of solutions was followed. This way, over many years, the community had collectively built up resources that were necessary in order for the LX users to maintain the LX on their own. In 2001, a member volunteered to aggregate members’ contact information and their core knowledge skills in maintaining the LX. He wanted to use the database for the newcomers and for those who will continue to use the LX long after the list died when the resources would no longer be available:

“…we could create a database which all people who are so kind to support the HPLX community even after they leave the list (if ever) can add their contact information and a short HPLX-related skills profile, so that, when you have a s[p]ecific problem with (for example) an Internet connection with cel[l] phone you simply do a search for "cell phone" and it appears, besides others, the entry

name: [David Wong]
email: [dw]@epost.de
URL: www.[david-wong].de
skills: cell phones, LaTeX, Synchronization, serial port,.....”
(User EI, Sep. 2001)

The responses were favorable, showing that the members valued participation as an important part of sustaining the community and the obsolete machine. A few months later, in February 2002, a member suggested the list to introduce themselves to the list in 80 minutes. The thread continued for about a month from users around the world:

[Stanley Bower], New Zealand
Owner of one well travelled single speed unit featuring a Hinge Crack and a rubber band modified latch.
(User TG, Jan. 2002)

[Dan], I hail from Los Angeles, CA, originally from Roseburg, Oregon. USA All the Way! I posted several months ago a suggestion that we set up an HPLX conference to get everyone on the list in a convenient location. Anyone else interested? [John Bulard]
(User KC, Feb. 2002)

105 members have responded to the thread. Then user EI suggested to merge the contact information gathered from this email thread to the knowledge database. Currently, the database is offline due to privacy concerns, but this event showed how much the list was conscientious about using the collective knowledge for those who need help in maintaining the obsolete machine that essentially have little resources to depend on. The fact that the LX was obsolete pushed users to actively engage in collectively building resources for maintaining the LX.

Unveiling Invisible Collective Creativity

Because of the members’ active participation, it also unveiled the creativity of the members in getting around the problems that were created due to the obsolescence.  For example, reading a PDF file on the LX was a big issue since existing DOS based PDF readers required higher system requirements than the LX. Accordingly, the members had to come up with their own ways of reading PDF files, and these were shared on the email list starting 1998 through 2005.

In February 1999, user UP suggested printing PDF files from a fax driver and reading the output from the fax viewer. However, this fax viewer solution did not seem to get much attention. Instead, user EO followed up saying that some PDF files could be read directly without the viewer while others do not. Because this solution had uncertainties, his second suggestion was to convert PDF files into images from other computers and import them into the LX.

From this point on, the members discussed a variety of ways in which PDF files could be read. The members found downloadable programs that could convert PDF files to .TXT or ASCII files as well as email addresses to which the members could send PDF files and receive text files back. In March 2001, a member introduced using Google to open PDF file as a text file and downloading the HTML file to the LX. Later, instead of the PDF to TXT or HTML solution, user CN shared his know-how of viewing PDF files through image capture:

you can open it in Acrobat on your desktop, capture a screenshot to your clipboard (I think on a Windows box you press PrtScrn), then trim it neatly in a graphics program before saving the image to .pcx or some other format. Then you can view it in LXPic on your palmtop. It's easier than it sounds. (User CN, Jul. 2001)

In April 2005, a member distributed an application that converted PDF files directly into the image files. Another member then complained about the size of the resulting image file, which he then solved through manually getting rid of the white bordering around the text.

The LX users were constantly adapting their own ways of solving problems. Aside from viewing PDF files problem, there were many other challenges such as breaking hardware and outdating software that the users had to deal with. However, this very process of overcoming the LX becoming obsolete and losing compatibility with the advancing computing environment has unveiled the collective creativity of the LX users that would otherwise have been hidden.

Becoming Well-Informed

Even with active knowledge sharing and creative work-arounds, maintaining the LX was still challenging. Accordingly, the members had to constantly look out for alternatives that could replace the LX:

I just picked up one of these beasties [Zaurus] at HSN.COM for $180-ish shipped. I was wondering if I could get some feedback from anyone who has used it and can compare/contrast with an LX. There are obvious differences in battery life, color, etc but I was wondering about built-in applications. So far this thing seems like a good alternative for those who want a "modern" color PDA but find PocketWindows too bloated and PalmOS too primitive. The coolest part is that you can use the SD slot form flash mem and the CF slot for ethernet or other periph. (User F, Mar. 2003)

During the course of researching the alternatives and sharing experiences on the list, the members became well-informed about the alternative products and their pros and cons of the detailed aspects. Examples included how keyboard touch feels, what available customized as well as built-in applications are, how easy it is to back up, how long the battery life is, or what daily usage practices are.

Because the LX was an intricate part of the members’ lives, daily resources and practices were built around the LX, making it one of the impeding factors for the LX users to move on to an alternative device. Thus, it was important to know the degree to which the alternative device can continue to support the workflow that was established around the LX. This forced the members to actively engage in conversations to be well informed about alternative devices beyond features and machine performances. As a result, the members became well aware of the choices they have as consumers and perceived themselves to be able to make well-informed decisions than other general consumer groups.

Co-Construction of Group Identity

Because the members became well-informed consumers and the LX was not something that anybody could use (it required minimum programming knowledge), the members begun to distance themselves apart from the general group of users.  HP200LX becoming abandoned in place of a new mobile platform WinCE, which was supposedly user-friendlier than DOS, pushed the members even further away from “the normal users”, which opened up another space for the LX users to co-construct their group identity. Here is an exemplary conversation thread in which user BN responds to user TE:

› HP are NOT making a big mistake by discontinuing the 200LX any more 
› than your girlfiend was whe[n] she dumped you for the nerd with pots
› of money.

Yeah, yeah, we react like the dumped boyfriend. But hey, rejection is tough. :)

› It's their choice and their problem. _We_ don't have a problem.

A little yes…
(User BN, July 1999)

Notice here how user BN and TE refer to the list members as “we” who react to the discontinuation like the dumped boyfriend, and HP as “they” who abandoned the LX over the new mobile platform.  Similarly, in the following, by grouping the users “these days” that buy “crappy computer hardware and software”, user TE contrasts the LX users from the general group of users and characterizes the LX users as those who make informed decisions:

They [the companies] don't care if the machines are a pain in the butt and the users are frustrated.  These days, users are willing to accept crappy computer hardware and software... (User TE, 1999)

However, another user argued that the general group of users, in fact, prefers WinCE or computing devices that they consider “crappy”, placing themselves further away from the general users:

No, no, no.  They [users] love that [WinCE]. There's nothing better than a big installed base who thin[k]s that a bug fix is properly referred to as an "upgrade." (User MD, 1999)

Watkins, in his book Throwaways (Watkins), argued that distancing between the new and the old gave a means of maintaining dominance through distinction from others. For example, rather than being viewed as true progression, to Watkins, avant-gardism was merely another means of social distinction, a way to stay one step ahead. In the case of the LX community, the use of old, instead of the new, has been placed as their ways of staying techno-culturally one step ahead. This process of social distinction played an important part in the formation of the group identity, which in turn tightened the community and brought them closer together.

Obsolescence Uncovers Values in Technology Use

When we picture obsolete computers, they are dusted, big, heavy, slow, and clunky – they are perceived to have little ability to perform as newer computers do. However, obsolescence is such a situated notion that it may be construed arbitrarily depending on how, to whom, and when an object becomes obsolete. Although planned obsolescence may reclassify a machine as obsolete, its actual disuse may come later. Even if the disuse occurs, again, throwing away may happen later. The LX community showed a representative example of the constant re-interpretation of the obsolescence through the tight tension between reclassification of the LX as obsolete by the corporate and perceived obsolescence by the end-users.

For the LX users, the LX was not obsolete – it was still the most functional device they could find at the time. The LX users were then committed to maintain the LX over eight years after discontinuation, challenging the notion of obsolete computers as worthless. The LX users maintained the obsolete machine not solely because of the nostalgic purposes but arguably because of the quality and functionality the machine possessed.

In fact, the LX community was merely a representative of many user communities of discontinued computing artifacts (Muniz Jr. and Schau, Frauenfelder) that could attest to the arbitrary notion of obsolescence. The constant tension between the forced obsolescence and the refusal towards obsolescence, in return, allowed the LX community to discover values that may not otherwise have been revealed. In the process of pushing back the notion that the LX is obsolete, the community was able to bring to the surface the active participation of the community, the hidden forms of collective creativity, constant efforts in becoming well informed, and the formation of group identity.


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obsolete technology; maintenance; HP200LX; sustainability; design

Copyright (c) 2009 Jina Huh, Mark S. Ackerman

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