Replacement, Displacement, and Obsolescence in the Digital Age

  • William Uricchio


The concept of obsolescence travels with difficulty. A useful if not terribly scientific way to assess the delicate cultural valences the term is subject to is via the “Google image-search test.”1 Entering “obsolescence” and its translations across various languages—each on the appropriate language group’s Google site—algorithmically yields sometimes strikingly divergent image clusters. In German, Obsoleszenz and Veralten rise to the top, with the former triggering images of light bulbs (whose carefully engineered life span evokes the notion of “planned obsolescence”) and mountains of debris, suggesting that the term has an ecological register vis—à—vis excess consumption. Veralten offers a wider range of images, in part because the term is often used to promote the advantages of leasing rather than owning (from houses to copiers), to celebrate classic aphorisms, and to document broken parts. Dutch uses the related word verouderen, but unlike Veralten on, offers endless images of aging humans. The far less frequent phrase in onbruik raken generates a wide range of images to suggest what might best be translated back into English as “disuse” or “nonuse.” Chinese characters generate more positive images on Google. cn, celebrating the patina of age and the warm glow of antiquity. My point is simple: obsolescence enjoys significant semantic slippage, particularly across languages and cultures.


Chinese Character Warm Glow Modern Subject Nitrate Film Consumer Electronics Industry 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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    Katheen Fitzpatrick, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology, and the Future ofthe Academy ( New York: New York University Press, 2011 ).Google Scholar
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    Charles Ackland, Residual Media ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007 ).Google Scholar
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    Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format ( Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012 ).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman 2015

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  • William Uricchio

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