New, improved isn’t always good

The other day, I noticed that the laptop computer I use for writing this column was behaving differently. The words were repetitive and repetitive; the writing had occasional mizpelings — and many of the paragraphs ended in mid-senten.

  • Wednesday, October 1, 2008 12:00am
  • Opinion

The other day, I noticed that the laptop computer I use for writing this column was behaving differently. The words were repetitive and repetitive; the writing had occasional mizpelings — and many of the paragraphs ended in mid-senten.

So I took my machine to the same place I’d bought it fewer than six years ago. The whiz kid behind the counter gave it a quick once-over and said, “This keyboard is pretty dirty.” If that was the information I was looking for, I would have taken my laptop to a dry cleaner.

After another few minutes of examination, the kid finally announced, “I’m not sure we can fix this thing. It’s a vintage model and it’d be hard to get parts.”

Vintage? What did that mean? Did it mean that my laptop was an enduring classic, or that it looked like I’d spilled a glass of pinot blanc on the keyboard?

As soon as I got home, I looked up the word “vintage” just to be sure. When I got past all the favorable definitions about fine wine, excellence and maturity, my eyes fell upon the meaning the computer kid intended: “Old and outmoded.”

Just six years old, and my laptop is old and outmoded. I stared out the old and outmoded window of my home office at the old and outmoded 2004 sedan sitting in my driveway. Realizing I was sitting in my old and outmoded boxer shorts, I shuffled into the laundry room, removed my old and outmoded Dockers from our old and outmoded Maytag dryer and slipped them on my old and outmoded self.

It’s getting to the point that everything you buy new is already passe by the time you get it home. Laundry detergent that is “new and improved” is “old and impaired” before it’s half-gone. If you get a puppy on Monday, plan on feeding it senior formula by Wednesday. And you’re lucky if you get an hour and a half out of a five-day deodorant pad any more.

It won’t be long before a worker who makes, say, thingamabobs will take a lunch break only to come back and have his boss tell him, “Forget the thingamabobs. We’re not making those any more. It’s doo-hickeys now.”

You might remember reading once about something called planned obsolescence. (Obsolescence is a big word that has pretty much become obsolete these days.) It has to do with a business and manufacturing practice that began sometime in the 1920s or ‘30s, where right from the start, products are designed or planned to go haywire. After all, if things like fashions never changed, a guy might wind up wearing the same pair of neon bellbottom pants that he bought 30 years ago. Such as my brother does, for example.

The idea is to get suckers — I mean, consumers like us — to be repeat customers over and over again. And the best way to do that is to make sure that the vehicles, light bulbs and wax lips we buy won’t last long. (Some people think wax lips by their very nature aren’t intended to last long, but I maintain that with love and care, wax lips can last a lifetime.) I recently found out that the rubber chicken I got last Christmas is already considered vintage, since it has lost that new rubber chicken smell. In another year, it will be an antique; soon after that, museum-worthy.

I saw a report the other day that Kodachrome, the photographic film that’s been around since the Great Depression, might be soon discontinued by Eastman Kodak. Apparently, with digital cameras and home video (both of which also become old and outmoded within moments of purchase), the demand for film just isn’t there. Paul Simon saw it coming in his song from 1973, when he sang, “Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.” Apparently, mama was into tough love.

The whole thing can be a bit dismaying to people who long for days gone by, but I’m happy to report that my disabled laptop still has a place in my house, working nicely now as a doorstop. And it couldn’t have come at a better time since my actual doorstop stopped working two weeks ago and I wasn’t able to get parts for it.

My wife told me something on my birthday a couple of weeks ago that cheered me up quite a bit. She said, “You’re not getting older, you’re getting outmoded.” So that means my glass — a bit cracked and out of style — is nonetheless half full.

• Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com.

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