Obsolescence: Media history, policy and aesthetics

Cultural Technologies Node and Media Histories Nodes
Project Coordinators: Dr Jason Wilson and Prof Jason Jacobs


"Obsolescence is the leading product of our national infatuation with technology" Jonathan Franzen, in “Scavenging”

Media studies can be unduly concerned with moments of crisis and rupture, especially recently, since digital technologies have emerged as a focus. New media scholarship often veers between utopian, pessimistic and “revolutionary” accounts of the “newest” medium and its consequences. But newness is relative, and must be seen in relation to its opposite, obsolescence.

Specific technologies’ passages to obsolescence are not sudden, but stealthy and gradual – Sterne and other scholars point out that obsolescence comes after extended periods of diminishing “newness” in the historical life of technologies, and the obsolete can be redeemed. Obsolescence is usually reversible, as nostalgia industries work to resuscitate the cultural value of faded technologies (for example, seeking out the “analogue” a marker of distinction). Obsolescence can mean the supersession of the technological capacities of a technology – as in the replacement of analogue phone networks – or the phasing out of particular uses of a technology – as in the earliest videogames’ demonstration to audiences of the potential of television beyond its uses as a channel for broadcasting. Observing persistent use of obsolescent technologies can reveal social divides, or determined resistance to the onward march of technology. In a world increasingly preoccupied with environmental concerns, technologies’ structural obsolescence has broader ramifications.

Project Activities

Research workshop
1 - 2 October 2009