Wake up! Time to replace me!

Every morning, I look at my clock-radio with a mixture of sleepiness and mild revulsion. It’s an ugly old thing and I’d love to get rid of it and replace it with something with a white-noise feature, a sleeker look, better radio reception, a slot for my iPod, and so on. But the months and years go by and I never do.

It’s not that I have a sentimental attachment to the old Sony box. It’s that a) it still works, and b) I know that anything new I buy is likely to die or become obsolete in a couple of years, and then I’ll have to buy yet another new device. And that’s just stupid.

Sleek new electronics with the latest whiz-bang features are like that: No machine I buy today will still be functioning for me a decade from now. Getting our hands on new technology can make us happy, but the flip side is the sadness of planned obsolescence.

In the I.T. world, office PCs have roughly a three-year life cycle. (Macs used to have something closer to five, back in the day; that’s probably not true anymore.) InformationWeek has a story about Waste Management looking to supply its drivers with tablets for tracking routes etc. The problem: Tablets have an even shorter life cycle than laptops, just 18 months or so. So the I.T. honchos at WM aren’t sure they can pull it off. Which is stupid. Because business information needs don’t evolve at nearly the rate businesses have to turn over their information technology. Except when the new technology forces those needs to change.

We, and the businesses we work for, are all victims of our own success at advancing this technology so rapidly. This month’s Atlantic has a brief article about “The Fifty,” a 50,000-ton six-story forging press that makes industrial parts. Built in the 1950s, it broke down a few years ago, but Alcoa is repairing it and expects it to remain in service for another half-century, cranking out airplane parts and the like.

Things are so wastefully different in the realm of electronics. Now, I’m not asking for an iPod that will last a lifetime, or a tablet I can leave in useful working condition to my heirs. But wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to start planning for obsolescence even as we’re handing over the credit card for the newest shiny thing with a screen?

But wait, you say – it’s constant innovation that drives the sales that keeps companies like Apple thriving, and that’s what keeps the economy going. Growth! Growth! Growth!

Well, yes. But at what cost? Huge, to the environment, and painful to all of us who need devices to communicate and remind and so forth but then have to replace them every couple of years. I don’t have a solution, but I have a big complaint.

And Steve Jobs isn’t around anymore to complain to.