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Obsolete (by Paul W. Smith)

Peak-Stand Fall

I remember when I got my first pager.  Pagers were for special people who must always be available in an emergency, and so I felt important.  The feeling was short-lived. I soon realized that it could go off at any moment, compelling me to drop whatever I was doing and head for the nearest phone (smartphones had not yet obsoleted pagers).  I also learned that it is critical to dress appropriately when wearing a pager, lest one be mistaken for a drug dealer.

Our culture’s intoxicating brew of cutting-edge technologies has always put forth shiny objects which feed our egos and, in some cases, speed our workflow.  The not-so-hidden agenda of their creators is to make them obsolete before the revenue stream wanes.  The familiar adage “technology eats its young” is not without merit.

According to the definition, an obsolete thing is outdated and therefore no longer produced or used.  As a verb, the word has become a rallying cry for business leaders – our mission is to obsolete the other guy’s stuff and take his share.  Cassette tapes, pagers, rotary phones, typewriters, phonographs, floppy disks – all these and many more could still perform their intended function, but products that seem good enough are never good enough for long.

You and I travel a road to obsolescence not unlike that of our stuff.  We reach an age where we are at the absolute peak of a particular skill, only to begin the slow process of losing it.   People who are good enough, it seems, are not good enough forever either.

Psychologists know a lot about these skills and when we acquire them.  Their research, for example, tells us that learning a second language is easiest at the age of 7 or 8.   This accounts for my struggles on a recent trip to Italy.  My wife and I learned firsthand that a cup of tea was “molto bene” (very good), while a stunning woman would be “molto bello” (very beautiful), a crucial distinction of little value to an eight-year-old. A few years down the road, brain processing power peaks at 18.  This is a good thing to remember when you are cross-examining your teenager about staying out past curfew.  If they seem particularly adept at obfuscation, it’s because they are. 

Jack Weinberger, a Berkeley free-speech activist in the 60’s, advised “Never trust anyone over 30”.  This has some sound basis in neuroscience.  By that time, we will have passed through the peak age to remember unfamiliar names, the peak of life satisfaction, the optimal point for physical strength, and the best age to settle down in a relationship.  The average elite marathoner is 28, so I personally missed that one, along with the peak age for playing chess (31). 

In our 30’s through 60’s, we will peak at learning new faces and understanding other people’s emotions.  We will also reach the pinnacle of our ability to focus, as well as the maximum skill level for arithmetic.  We will have our best shot at winning a Nobel Prize, and achieve the highest salary of our career.  It is often said that middle age is our most productive time, and the data seem to support that.  It would also seem to imply that we are stumbling toward obsolescence from there on.

The data also offers a ray of hope.  We all continue to grow wiser and more psychologically stable as we age.  It is often said that teenagers and young adults have vitality on their side, but both men and women feel best about their bodies around age 70, which I am beginning to suspect is from some combination of resignation and denial.  Nevertheless, it is reassuring that while our obsolete stuff is constantly being replaced, so are our little human skills being exchanged for the bigger gifts of wisdom and well-being. 

As the second peak age for life satisfaction (69) makes a not-so-distant appearance on my radar, I am happy to report that I no longer carry a pager.  My Apple watch now taps my wrist when an important message comes in, while voicemail is transcribed and scrolls by on its little screen. 

I am at peace with this, wisely observing that it is all so much better than that annoying, obsolete pager.

PWSmith-Logo InvenTPM Logo

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith, a Founder and Director of Engineering with INVENtPM LLC, has more than 35 years of experience in research and advanced product development.

Prior to founding INVENtPM, Dr. Smith spent 10 years with Seagate Technology in Longmont, Colorado. At Seagate, he was primarily responsible for evaluating new data storage technologies under development throughout the company, and utilizing six-sigma processes to stage them for implementation in early engineering models. He is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and currently manages the website “Technology for the Journey”.  

Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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