Learning to accept unplanned obsolescence

    I am obsolete, which is an unpleasant enough realization, but it is worse than that. I am obsolete according to the AARP, which stands for, though I think they want us to forget, American Association of Retired Persons.

    Despite the camouflage of a hip acronym, and embracing an increasingly broad age group, let’s be frank: AARP represents the interests of people who appreciate the irony in the brand names Fossil and Sag Harbor. No matter one’s age, when the AARP says you’re obsolete, you pay attention.

    Recently, the AARP Bulletin listed several items and traits that will soon disappear for lack of relevance. I own, use, or exhibit all of them, and consider several essential. Hence my conclusion.

    Regular mail is one of them. I still use stamps, though mailboxes are getting hard to find. My father was a letter carrier, long before email and pith helmets, when mailmen carried heavy leather bags, came to the door, and were almost always, well, men. Getting the daily mail was an eagerly anticipated event, a link to the outside world, and the letter carrier was familiar, respected, and not prone to tempermental outbursts.

    When I was small, I would run to the screen door when I heard our mailman coming up the front steps. He would say hello, hand me the mail, and go on his way. Now I live in the suburbs and my mailbox sits at the curb, where it is filled anonymously by someone who is extremely skilled at pushing slightly-too-large boxes into the available space. Still, on parcel-free days it is nice to retrieve the mail and see an envelope addressed by hand.

    That’s another soon-to-vanish item: cursive writing. Neat, clear handwriting was once valued, even admired. Now it is not even taught in school. Soon cursive may be like hieroglyphics, requiring specially trained interpreters. Yet I still marvel at beautiful handwriting, and it is a pleasure to see a familiar hand on a card or letter. Without reading, I know the sender just by the rhythm of loops and tails. And pre-DNA, handwriting revealed, to the trained eye, characteristics of the writer. Once ink was the forerunner of bodily fluids.

    AARP says that physical media are also going away, which is tragic for those of us who have only recently learned what physical media are. Nevertheless, CDs, DVDs and all of the other devices on which information is stored will soon be like eight-track tapes, cassettes, and VCRs.

    If we lose physical media, can the demise of the desktop computer be far behind? It is already happening. Experts say that in a decade or two everybody will save everything to the cloud, a virtual server, and access it all through their phones. Am I the only one skeptical of this arrangement? I don’t want personal information floating around in the ether, to be accessed by a device with buttons that are only visible with glasses I can never find. As things stand now, if I lose an important paper, I can find it eventually, as long as I haven’t accidentally shredded it or just bid adieu to the trash men. Also, if it’s really critical I almost certainly have a copy.

    There are two items on AARP’s list, however, that I am happy to surrender: passwords and driving. Sayonara. I desperately need the memory taken up with my top-secret number-and-letter combos to figure out where to donate my desktop and physical media. As for driving, I have spent enough time swerving around, braking for, and generally avoiding drivers as they phone, text, tune, read, talk, and check their hair. An auto-auto would finally enable me to don the blindfold I have long wished I could wear behind the wheel. So obsolescence isn’t always bad.

    Good or bad, time brings a degree of obsolescence to us all, even those new college freshmen who don’t know what a telephone booth was and think Ronald Reagan and James Madison were contemporaries. The trick is not to be so enamored of the past that we miss all of the interesting things in the present. Obsolescence is a byproduct of experience, but it need not be our epitaph.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in the Philadelphia area. She maintains a wary, but appreciative, relationship with technology and can be reached at PJForsythe@aol.com.

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