Planned obsolescence

Not a rotary dial of old, but nearly obsolete all the same. We've hung on to this working phone for over 35 years.

Not the rotary dial of old, but nearly obsolete all the same. We’ve hung on to this working phone for over 35 years. [Gretchen Lord Anderson photo]

There was a time when I did a short stint at the Omaha headquarters of Northwestern Bell in their corporate public relations department. My parents were ecstatic. Working for the “phone company” was the epitome of stability in terms of both job and benefits. The only place to go was up. How many times had I heard my mom lament that if she hadn’t gotten married she could have not only held on to that job at the Bell switchboard in Chamberlain, S.D. (around 1935) and really succeeded in a man’s world?

But among the lessons I learned working for Northwestern Bell was that the times were changing. I was required to attend business seminars throughout that year and in one of them there was a heated discussion among the participants from several divisions of the company regarding customer relations. I don’t recall the exact issue, but I was appalled at the consensus of this particular group that the company’s position must always be upheld.

Having been raised in a business atmosphere myself and taught that while we should always look out for the best interests of the company, we must always put the customer first, I interrupted the harmony of the gathering and questioned, “What happened to ‘the customer is always right?’”

The response from the attractive blonde across the room was filled with derision. “We can’t afford that. The company is always right.”

Within a couple years after I fled that portion of the Bell family, I took some solace in the court decision that broke up the Bell monopoly. Northwestern Bell was no more. I wondered how many of the people who were in that seminar with me, how many people in the public relations division and throughout the company lost their jobs. I’ve wondered about the blonde across the room declaring that the company could no longer adhere to customer relations that truly cared about the customer. I suspect she landed on her feet and is now or will soon be settling back into a comfortable retirement on a beach somewhere with cabana boys delivering her drinks with little umbrellas in them.

Like a dinosaur, I have continued to believe that is it not only important but mandatory to respect those we serve whether it is in private industry or government. What’s more, I have also clenched harder onto what I was also taught at home: Respect your elders. I did come to modify that a bit as I grew to think for myself: Even if you don’t like them, respect your elders because their years give them wisdom you don’t have.

On the verge of obsolescence, this Samsung is four years old. [Gretchen Lord Anderson photo]

On the verge of obsolescence, this Samsung is four years old. [Gretchen Lord Anderson photo]

Sunday, Terry and I made our way into a U.S. Cellular store to get some assistance with what we determined was a problem with the settings on his phone that prevented him from downloading an app necessary to set up a new Amazon Echo, a robotic device that sets on your counter and gives you whatever information you desire and in a conversational manner. We felt rather proud of ourselves that we had narrowed the issue down to the phone and didn’t just give up and try to return our purchase. The issue was, indeed, the phone, but not a setting. To make a very long and frustrating afternoon somewhat shorter, the issue was that his phone can no longer receive updates from Samsung. It’s four years old and it will, in rather short measure, become obsolete. I have a phone exactly like it but it was built perhaps even six months after his so I have the latest updates on mine. We were able to use my phone to set up his new Echo and he was in business.

Clearly, we have to accept that technology is changing quickly. But also clearly, these new cell phones are marketed with planned obsolescence in mind. When Western Electric was building phones for the Bell companies, those dialing darlings were meant to last generations and they did. Now a cell phone with all the bells and whistles is considered after four years to be “old” by the technicians lined up to fix them.

But more disturbing to me than the planned obsolescence of the phone is the attitude of the young people working in those stores who clearly look upon their elders not with respect but with an attitude of placation, of appeasement with a hint of derision. We were right. The problem was with the phone. But in their eyes, the problem was not with the phone but with customers who would hold on to a phone for four years and expect it to work with all the latest technology. Not only was the phone becoming obsolete, we were already obsolete, irrelevant. The phone support we got was even worse, even insolent. To be fair, the first young man who waited on us in person felt there would be a fix to the problem. The older (but still young) woman who followed him stopped just short of shrugging whenever we asked a question as we began to let our situation set in. When we walked out of the store, I glanced back at her to find her and her younger companion staring at us and shaking their heads. Poor old people, I imagined they thought. Soon they’ll be dead and it won’t matter anymore.

The sexy voiced Amazon Echo taunts me from the countertop. [Gretchen Lord Anderson photo]

The sexy voiced Amazon Echo taunts me from the countertop. [Gretchen Lord Anderson photo]

It is important to stay relevant regardless of our age. Most of the people I know who graduated from high school when I did have been quite successful in whatever career or vocation they have pursued and with technology as it has progressed. But I am understanding that in order to maintain that relevancy, it will come at a high financial cost. Most of us will not be able to maintain our own computers and websites if ever we did in the first place. Most of us will be required to purchase a new phone every two or three years if we want to remain “smart.”

We’re among the fortunate who will be able to scrape together the necessary funds to keep our gadgets relevant. To what extent, I wonder, will we even desire that kind of relevance.

Just as customer appreciation is becoming a thing of the past, the whole definition of relevance has changed as well in the eyes of so many. But what is important in life? How important is our own relevance to the rest of the world? Is staying relevant a way to protect ourselves against a society, a culture that writes off the wisdom of anyone over 55? And what good is relevance without a sense of the spiritual, without taking in regular doses of our kinship with God through simple reading, through prayer, through biblical study, through worship?

Therein lies the problem, the crux of the situation. If we give in to a technological age and increasing contempt for those who are older, if we give in to the requirements of culture and society to be relevant in worldly terms, we are giving up pieces, no, chunks of our souls. We become more and more like the robot that sits proudly on our counter and spouts all kinds of knowledge in a sexy female voice. We become more and more like the technicians that hide behind phone banks or desks in so-called customer service offices; propeller heads disguised in casual upscale attire with artificial smiles pasted on their faces. We become, like they, artificial intelligence without feeling and without respect for others regardless of age.

For now, I’m going back to reading a good book by Eugene Peterson. On my Kindle (which has already been replaced by a newer version).


“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” – Dylan Thomas

Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity.” – 1 Timothy 4:8

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17             How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18             I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.” – Psalm 139:16b-18

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