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01 November 2007

Symbolic obsolescence defines this century.



The concept of symbolic obsolescence is so new that it has barely crept into our lexicon, but is already affecting brands and their consumption.

I could find some mention of the term in an a number of design journal articles dating back to 1994 and you will be able to do your own search of references, but I couldn't even find a dictionary definition.

So here's mine:

Symbolic obsolescence: the perception that something is obsolete (noun)

Symbolic obsolescence is not attached to planned or functional obsolescence, which is usually determined by the brand owner. However, it is likely that the brand owner can take some responsibility for its occurence because of the rapidity of continuous product or service rollouts. Often these are disguised as improvements but in many cases, the improvements are so minor or competitively mimic others. Symbolic obsolescence occurs because consumers perceive that their status as is either a group or individually is affected (usually seeking to elevate it) by not acquiring the product or service. In a effect it's a contemporary update on the old saying "keeping up with the joneses", something explored by English philosopher Alain de Botton in his book, Status Anxiety.

Symbolic obsolescence is already part of modern consumption. Whether it's the Titanium card, the newest credit card from American Express or in Apple's update to its hugely popular iPod range, the iPod Touch. Let me demonstrate what I mean by way of review.

Here's a review from popular blog Endgaget:

It's hard to argue that there isn't beauty in simplicity, especially when it comes to consumer electronics. But there's such thing as too simple -- and sometimes too simple can turn into crippled. Most of our complaints about the touch have to do with what it lacks -- not in general, but when compared its big brother, the iPhone. Had the iPod touch come out first, the lack of a hardware volume switch, integrated speaker, and all those apps might have been perfectly passable, but now the expectations have been set, and we can't see how taking things away from users can possibly add value. Everyone in this industry is trying to give their customers more, but with the iPod touch Apple gave its customers less in what should have been the best iPhone alternative on the market. This time around, in Apple's obsession to edit, they managed to leave some of the best stuff on the cutting room floor.


or this from Wall Street Journal tech critic Walt Mossberg:

Apple says the Touch was meant mainly to present typical iPod features, not to replicate the iPhone, and it included the Web browser only so users could get onto Wi-Fi to use the mobile music store in certain places that required a log-in screen.

But it seems ridiculous to me to sell a powerful device with Wi-Fi and a huge screen, and to leave out things like an email program, even though you can use Web-based email programs. I assume Apple was concerned that the less costly Touch might compete too much with the iPhone if it had these features. In fact, if somebody can jam a voice-over-Internet capability into the iPod Touch, it might be more of a threat to the iPhone, which is tethered to a single cellphone carrier, AT&T.


In Australia, where the iPhone is yet to released (strange decision from Apple but then again it's not even 3G), the release of the iPod Touch was seen as something we should hold our collective breath for. However, what seems clear from both these reviews is that the Touch is merely an interim lower storage device available in a lower price bracket to the iPhone, with a lot less of it's features. It plainly exhibits planned obsolescence as both reviews attest to.

However, as symbolic obsolescence it would be difficult to find a better example. In a year's time the coolhunter buyers of this year's Touch will be out buying their hopefully 3G iPhone (unless they brought in a hacked version from the US or Europe) and the touch will be relegated to eBay dustbin. Why? Because to have one and to display it, both among our peers and to society, defines us.

Just as Moore's Law helped define the inevitable rise and rise of technology at the end of last century, symbolic obsolescence will significantly influence almost all brand owners and our pattern of consumption of brands this century.

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