tags: cultural history, material culture, Obsolescence
Barbara Penner is a contributing writer for Places, and Professor of Architectural Humanities at The Bartlett School, UCL.
Adrian Forty is professor emeritus of architectural history at The Bartlett, UCL.
And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859
History is filled with objects that once populated the world, but do so no longer. Some artifacts and technologies that have disappeared were once ubiquitous; others barely made it into existence, not much more than an idea or prototype. Here we are interested not simply in why some things — even once very familiar things — have disappeared, but in what their disappearance tells us about the world we have created for ourselves.
The process of the disappearance of objects and technology, ranging in scale from tools and equipment to structures and infrastructures, is sometimes referred to as obsolescence, and sometimes — and this is the description we have chosen to focus on — as extinction. Both terms contain assumptions about how and why things disappear, while neglecting other, no less pertinent, possibilities. “Extinction” is explicitly a borrowing from theories of natural selection and evolution, and, like all analogies, makes certain things clearer, while obscuring others. The economist Amartya Sen warns, “Darwin’s general idea of progress … can have the effect of misdirecting our attention, in ways that are crucial in the contemporary world.“ 1
One particular obfuscation that arises when Darwin’s ideas of evolution are applied to artifacts is the assumption that it is only the fittest, the best, or the most appropriate objects and technology that survive. In this model, design, like nature, is thought to be an optimization machine, always pushing forward — progressing towards perfection. When things disappear, they do so, it is implied, because of their own inadequacy or their unsuitedness to their conditions. Yet extinct objects can help us to recall other ways and possibilities of engaging with the world. Why are extinct objects suited for this task? We suggest that technology and products, at the moment of their invention, must all project forward in some way. The very act of designing and manufacturing is anticipatory; to be conceived of and to be produced, a thing is necessarily imprinted with an idea of future needs, demands, or ways of living which it may then help to bring about. As the architectural theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley observe, “Design is a form of projection, [it is] to shape something rather than find it, to invent something and think about the possible outcomes of that invention.” 2 This projected vision of the future may not be heroic or utopian; indeed, it is more often mundane and humble. But in this light the extinction of even an insignificant design points to a road not taken, a future rerouted or unrealized.
In considering extinct things, we encounter the ghosts of futures that never came to pass, their projections having proved to be unfounded, short-lived, misguided. Extinct objects continue to retain the imprint of possible futures, some of which we may be glad to have left behind and others whose relevance we are perhaps recovering. To study extinct objects is also to cast new light on the present. Narratives of technology tend to be innovation-focused and do not pay much attention to cast-offs or dead-ends; they emphasize novelty and vision and are infused with a sense of destiny. But the history of objects becomes far richer when we also consider the underside of progress: the conflicts, obsolescence, accidents, destruction, and failures that have been such an integral part of modernization and its modes of operation.
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