2020 is the first year that I got a taste of what chronic pain and decline might feel like. The year was riddled with injury, first my shoulder, then my upper back, and more recently my lower right hip. It is no wonder that for thousands of years, people have yearned for an existence beyond a physical body that becomes obsolete with time. The religious aspire to a spiritual afterlife and more recently, technologists hope to upload their consciousness into the cloud. The choice of obsolescence as my inaugural topic is no accident. Just like our bodies, ideas have a shelf life, they are especially relevant to a specific period and its zeitgeist. The ideas that I discuss here will eventually be made irrelevant by future discourse. While this admission can be interpreted as intellectual laziness, it can also be recognized as intellectual honesty and humility. Those who take the former view are more aligned with Plato, who believed that the beautiful, the good, and the true should be enduring and stand the test of time. Those who favor the latter view may cite the concept of paradigm shifts, coined by Thomas Kuhn in 1962.
Cambridge dictionary defines the word “obsolete” as “no longer used or needed, usually because something newer and better has replaced it.” People are generally afraid of becoming obsolete. Many people derive meaning from being useful to certain causes or the people they care about. One significant relationship that we have with our society exists economically through the work that we perform. This is why we equate the question “what do you do?” with “what is your job?” This is also why adults, especially breadwinners, feel immense pressure to always be gainfully employed. Even though our job is not the only role that we play in society, today’s social contract seems to implicitly demand economic participation through individual productivity. This explains the provocation caused by the writer Yuval Noah Harari when he uses the term “useless class” to describe masses of people who may be replaced by automation in the future.
Harari’s conclusion is less surprising for people who have noted the changes in labor and capital in the past century. A major innovation in production came in the form of Fordism in the early 1900s. This approach replaced skilled craftsmen with unskilled laborers whose tasks are highly specific and simple, causing individual workers to be easily replaceable. Our understanding of ourselves is undeniably shaped by our work, which seems to suggest that we are all essentially obsolete as long as some other person or object can provide the same function. In the eyes of our corporate overlords, we are just biological robots being replaced by cheaper electronic ones.
Technology seems to accelerate change and therefore, speed up obsolescence. There are now jobs that our parent’s generation would have never fathomed: social media marketer, machine learning engineer, data scientist. People of different age groups also tend to use different social media platforms, which influences how and with whom cultural artifacts are shared. A popular meme or cryptic string of emojis may be easily understood by every teenager but will likely confound most adults. The rise of Twitter has also caused an insatiable demand for instant news, which often undermines the reliability and thoughtfulness of the reporting. Oftentimes, erroneous news spread like wildfire almost instantaneously. By the time they are fact-checked, another headline has taken its place as the focus of outrage, causing an endless cycle of false beliefs.
In the past, the world changed more gradually. There used to be a clearer definition of roles played by the young, the adult, and the elderly. Age translated into lived experience, which in turn translated into practical wisdom. Older members of the community served as elders to guide the young. With increased digitalization, this relationship has been reversed — people over the age of 65 are found to be seven times more likely to spread fake news than someone between the age of 18 to 29. Broader shifts in society, including rising inequality, ever-growing college debt, and wider acceptance of climate change, mean that societal norms and life expectations are quickly changing, leaving behind the lives our parents lived. It feels increasingly difficult to be old, not only because the advisory role the old used to play is diminishing but also because newer contexts require active learning.
There are three deaths in Mexican culture, the final one occurring at the moment that a deceased person is last remembered by someone living. Similarly, if we are biologically alive but socially negligible, we are somewhat dead. This explains our fear of obsolescence as a type of death. However, the definition of obsolete includes the words “no longer”, which assumes a distinct prior state. Just as death is the natural outcome of living, perhaps obsolescence can be viewed as the outcome of being relevant. Seen this way, to be obsolete is a blessing. It means that a person has contributed to creating the present, which future generations will build over. This is akin to the layers of rock that form the Earth’s crust, each layer preceding the next and marking different geological epochs. While we will all become irrelevant, we should rejoice in the fact that we paved the way for what is to come. Obsolescence, therefore, is inevitable and a necessary ingredient for progress.
Accepting obsolescence is not easy, but even more difficult is knowing how much we should struggle in staying relevant while we are alive. One approach is to take steps to be a good ancestor for posterity. I believe that each generation is tasked with a specific set of challenges and how we respond will change the course of history. The future does not passively arrive but is actively created through the accumulation of choices by everyday people. Our present actions and approaches should respond to the unique issues that we face and build toward a desirable future. While we cannot avoid obsolescence, we can take steps to become obsolete in ways that we prefer.