Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Technology Obsolescence and the Archival Mission

I remember a decade ago trying to persuade my 84 year-old mother-in-law that she needed to toss her toaster because it created a situation where the bread would burst into flame. Since she lived in my house, I was particularly concerned about resolving the issue. When I told her we would simply replace it with a new and better one, for a very little bit of money, she struggled with the idea. Could we not take it to the repair shop and fix it? And I then proceeded to explain how not only was it probable that it could not be fixed, but that it might cost more money than simply acquiring a new toaster.

Most of us have experienced such conversations and, as Giles Slade in his new book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), ISBN 0-674-02203, suggests, this is merely a common event for those of us living in the United States. As Slade writes, “Deliberate obsolescence in all its forms – technological, psychological, or planned – is a uniquely American invention” (p. 3).

Slade examines the origins of the acceptance of technological obsolescence, considering automobiles, weapons, computers, cell phones, transistor radios, razors, watches, clothing, manufacturing shifts, and the notion of branding for marketing. Slade slowly builds the background for the current problem in e-waste plaguing our society. “Now more than ever,” he writes, “end-users of new technology need to pursue higher levels of technological literacy in order to negotiate the complex interactions among technology, society, and the environment. Ignorance of these interactions effectively grants a permission slip for technological hazards to persist” (p. 263). At one point, Slade describes 250,000 tons of discarded cell phones in our waste dumps, along with other computer waste, as being the “industrial challenge” of the 21st century.

Made to Break is another compelling book about the downside of technology in society, but it also provides some interesting insights in why the role of professionals involved in preservation (archivists, librarians, historic preservationists, museum curators, and others) often has a difficult job in trying to convince the public about why old stuff should be saved. If we are so accustomed to throwing everything out, even when much of it is still usable, it may be a greater challenge convincing those with the necessary resources to save an old building, preserve a historic site, and put historic archives into an acceptable repository.