Saying something's obsolete doesn't make it so

To demonstrate rotary dial phones to my children, I turned to my computer. More specifically, YouTube. (Using my mobile would've been a little too cute.) I discovered a video of a forest green vintage phone – presumably German, from the late 1970s or early '80s. The chunky clicks; the whirr of the rotor spinning back; the time dilation, as what was then almost instantaneous telecommunication now seems like a hand-delivered note.

"Oh, I've seen those before," said my son, treating my living memory with the banal historical taken-for-grantedness usually reserved for togas or top hats.

The source of this video and others – the floppy disc, the facsimile, the phonograph and, more controversially, the mouse – was the Museum of Obsolete Objects.

A website, Twitter account and YouTube channel, this museum is the work of an advertising company, Jung von Matt. While highlighting the tactile and nostalgic appeal of the analogue, the project is actually testament to the creators' comfort with new media. The production is glossy, with the vintage crackle and grain added digitally. The website is interactively slick.

In this, the project is not a museum – its thin content and ironic delivery have little to do with the curatorial, archival and scientific work of these institutions. Instead, it's exactly what you'd expect from an agency of this sort: advertising. Its focus is less on historical complexities, and more about fiscal responsibilities: consolidate brand awareness, show off talent. The old phone is still quite useful for Jung von Matt, as a kitschy emblem of exactly what they are not: out of date, inflexible, worthless.

A more general principle is at work here: charges of obsolescence are as much about the ambitions of the accuser as they are about the faded or cracked. This is equally true in the intellectual realm. To speak of obsolete ideas or values is to suggest that certain concepts or notions of worth simply haven't caught up; that their time has past, and their adherents need to change; that those bringing the charges exemplify "now", which is seen as automatically correct.


Sexism, for example, is often derided as the  fault of "dinosaurs", who haven't caught up. Most obviously, this suggests some easy consensus on gender, with a minority who haven't listened or understood. Yet gender inequality is still common, particularly for women in marginal groups here and overseas, who suffer disproportionate deprivation from combinations of class, ethnicity, disability and gender.

Less straightforwardly, there is no sense in which these forces of exploitation or discrimination are not happily "now". Like oppressive hierarchies in sweatshops, gender disadvantage works hand in hand with the very latest technologies and economic priorities. Put another way, the problem with sexism is not that it's old, but that it's unfair and harmful – and always was.

The point is not that those attacking sexism in this way are akin to advertisers, hawking brands (beautifully) for a buck. The point is that "obsolete" here is a suspicious category, which imports a great deal from craft thinking, and not enough from ethics and politics. It makes sense to speak of tools as obsolete when they no longer perform their function as effectively and efficiently as another, and when these criteria are the only ones. I have no interest in using an '80s word processor, since it does less than my desktop computer, and does it slowly and more clumsily. This older technology has been surpassed.

But the worst prejudices and power differences of sexism were often perfectly useful – for the beneficiaries. And still are. The problem is that they are morally questionable, and have often involved no small quantum of ideological delusion: mistaking cultural norms for universal, natural laws.

Another problem with this charge of obsolescence is the assumption of finality: that history has ended at this moment, and decided that one group is right. Clearly, I am arguing in favour of gender equality – I believe it to be a desirable and plausible goal. But I don't believe that history is somehow on my side; that we can stop arguing now, because of some inherent historical momentum. If we accept our ideas and values can triumph over others, we also recognise the opposite can occur: strife is our political and ethical condition, and it does not magically fade when my clan is victorious.

Phones and floppy discs become obsolete – humans must endure less convenient categories of failure.

Damon Young is a Melbourne philosopher and author.