Obsolescence

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The Devil’s Advocate
The mysteries and the unexplained section in your local library, yesterday


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It’s better to burn out than it is to rust. — Neil Young

The great falsification of the reductionist millenarians who foresee a world without work, a singularity, a future where chatbots will deliver legal services.

Two types: use-case obsolescence: classic case the Dewey decimal system; and competition obsolescence — classic case Sony Betamax.

Use-case obsolescence: the Dewey decimal system

The Dewey system is — but for most intents and purposes was — a taxonomy for physical libraries. You have to arrange a library somehow, and Dewey was the fellow that devised the system which most intuitively organised did that. For years, schoolboys like me knew to head immediately to 001.9 for MYSTERIES AND THE UNKNOWN.

But Dewey’s was an arbitrary intellectual commitment to order for the sake of it, a little bit like the layout of a QWERTY keyboard. It didn’t mean to do anything other than help users find books they were looking for, and librarians put them back.

Now, to those who jump at the shadows of power structures lurking in our language, to taxonomise to commit to a power structure. So, bad. But in a world of physical books, still, a necessary evil — you have to organise somehow. But in a networked world of digital books, not just unnecessary but meaningless. We can categorise digital information however we like.

So, we don’t hear much about the Dewey decimal system these days: it is obsolete. Its demise was driven by the lack of a viable use-case. Outside of physical libraries (are there still such things?) We no longer need it. Those who had it now found they could do perfectly well without it.

Competitive obsolescence: Betamax

There was a time, in my lifetime, readers, where there was no realistic way of recording or storing television content. This changed in the nineteen-seventies with the advent of the personal video cassette recorder (VCR). In 1975 Sony released the “Betamax” format. This was quickly followed by JVC’s competing “VHS” format. The rivalry between VHS and Betamax was so fierce it even has its own Wikipedia article.

To cut a long story short, after ten years, and notwithstanding that Betamax was the allegedly better format, VHS won out. Some claim VHS won due to its greater stock of pornographic movies. This is doubtful, but still an awesome theory.

What is instructive is what happened to all those loyal Betamax customers when Sony finally pulled the plug. Okay, they were stuck with a machine that was finally useless, and they needed to toss it out buy a new VHS one. But you upgrade your video player every few years anyway, right?

The real bummer was that their stock of purchased/recorded movies was useless too. All that money spent on Betamax tapes — the large part of that cost being the implied license to watch the film on the tape, rather than the intrinsic value of the cassette itself — was wasted. Betamax owners had to toss all their content out and start again.[1]

Unlike use-case obsolescence, competitive obsolescence leaves you with this significant tail risk — that all your investment, and all your content in the platform is wasted, and has to be rebuilt from scratch should another platform win out. This risk is such that users will be highly resistant to investing in your platform in the first place — the earlier stage you are at, the more resistance there will be.

Design challenge

I have a personal investment here: God forbid that they stop making MediaWiki. But it isn’t likely, because it is open source, and crowd-funded. Even if it stops, the code will remain, and the JC will limp ever onward. (But, by the way, donate to the Mediawiki foundation. It is a truly amazing thing.)

Design challenge therefore: how to create a platform that is as immune as possible to competitive obsolescence. The JC’s best guess at a theory: don’t compete. Give your platform away. Make it as open architecture as possible so that users can develop it in any way they, at the time, see fit. Make it interoperable, too, so that if it turns out now to be the platform that wins the war, you, and your users, can quickly transfer to the platform which does (which, we assume, will be even more interoperable than your is — otherwise, how did it win?)

See ClauseHub: theory.

See also

References

  1. The episode presents interesting philosophical tensions between the ideas of “tangible property” and “intellectual property”, but they’re not especially relevant here — and they don’t really present in the networked digital world where the model has switched from “owning a physical thing with some intellectual property rights built into it” to buying a licence to consume intellectual property, where the delivery mechanism (the Netflix app, say) is free, and the substrate over which you consume it (your device) is neutral.