Media obsolescence in the digital world

The concept of planned obsolescence was first addressed during the Great Depression (1929) as a way of reactivating the economy by setting an expiry date on consumer goods (and therefore promoting consumerism and securing more profits). After the Great Depression had passed, planned obsolescence became a widely known practice in which, by different means, goods were made obsolete. At the beginning, this obsolescence was less straightforward. The lack of standardisation in manufacture made the life of objects less durable. Yet later, the market discovered that obsolescence could be planned by making artefacts less durable (and potentially more breakable).

Furthermore, when the post-Fordist model became widespread, different techniques were employed in order to give the impression of obsolescence. In-built, stylistic and superfluous obsolescence were there to promote the idea that products and consumer goods needed to be replaced by ‘improved’ versions of themselves (whatever that means). This situation created a whole new set of expectations, in which both the market and consumers expected their goods to be ‘up-to-date’, leaving all the ones that didn’t make it obsolete and ultimately, extinct. And this is what’s being going on since then.

In the last 15-years, most of us have experienced the hectic way in which our stuff’s life span (be it media, clothing, etc.) decreases by the appearance of a newer, improved version of it. This, until consumers started to take this matter into their own hands with platforms such as Kickstarter and (but ultimately, digital platforms in general), that contest the market pace and obsolescence plans.

Here Polaroid case gains relevance. When Polaroid Corporation announced they were ceasing production (mainly film for their instant cameras) many would have thought it was the expected step to make in a digitally mediated world (with digital photography gaining terrain each day), yet what many didn’t saw coming was a big number of users –practitioners, enthusiasts, amateurs– that gathered online (coming from all over the world) to reverse this decision. This is when the first online plea campaigns were set up: and variations of it (although ultimately saved by Florian ‘Doc’ Kaps and André Bosman, a Polaroid lover and a former Polaroid factory worker respectively).

Today this modus operandi is much more widespread. Kickstarter and, platforms that work under crowdfunding and petition formats, are used to promote and ask different affairs, among which Polaroid and ‘save’ instant photography are included.

In the last couple of years, at least three campaigns have come out: New55 Peel-apart Film on Kickstarter (2014) , Save FC100 Packfilm (2016) on (created by Francesco Gasperini and promoted by Florian Kaps), and New55 Color Peel-apart Film (2016) on Kickstarter. These campaigns, which sought global support, appealed directly to users and practitioners around the world contesting planned obsolescence and the notion that their media were somehow irrelevant.

Yet ultimately, these campaigns challenge media temporality and the notion of technological progress, proving that practitioners and users can, in fact, prolong the life span of their media, no matter how old they may be.

Some thoughts to keep in mind and discuss: are these new (globally) communitarian campaigns a new way to deal with planned obsolescence and consumerism? Can these new forms of campaigning lead us to think about new market models? and more importantly, can these initiatives reverse the notion of media obsolescence and propose a new model for media temporality?



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