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Mad With Macintosh


What's Wrong With Older Macs?

(Yes, the Word "Obsolete" is Pejorative)


by Phil Shapiro

Reprinted by permission


Yes, the Word "Obsolete" is Pejorative We live in a world where many words carry value-laden connotations. On its face, the word "obsolete" appears to be rather innocuous. On closer examination it becomes quite clear how demeaning and injurious this word can be. Here is why.

In the educational technology field, the word "obsolete" is often used to describe older technology. It's an easy word to add to one's vocabulary. It's an easy word to use without considering the ramifications of what is being said. But stop for a moment and consider what happens when you (or anyone else) declares a piece of computer hardware to be obsolete. The implicit message is that users of that technology are themselves obsolete.

Given that the word obsolete is often used in the same breath as the word "worthless," when computer hardware is declared to be obsolete the underlying message is that this hardware is worthless. And the implicit message is that persons who continue to use this technology are themselves worthless.

Follow this logic for a moment: The word "obsolete" entered the language of microcomputer users via the incessant use of the word by computer marketing people. The bare-faced purpose of marketing people is to sell new computers by whatever means necessary. And one of the most effective ways of doing so is to shame people into thinking that their current computer is worthless and inadequate.

That the word obsolete is used to shame people came to my attention recently when I tried to find someone to help troubleshoot my septuagenarian mother's older computer. Mom lives a few hundred miles away, so I tracked down someone in a user group who could travel to my mom's apartment.

I was able to locate a user group member in her area who said she could be of help. But when I later called my mom to find out if my mother was able to receive assist, I heard that the following dialogue had taken place. Mom told me that this purported "help giver" had laughed out loud when she heard what computer my mom was using. Mom was then given detailed directions on how she could buy one of the latest model computers. My dear mother could easily afford to buy a new computer, but she quite sensibly refuses to upgrade her computer. Her older computer suits her needs to a tee. And mom knows that she would rather not learn how to use a whole new operating system. What struck me most about this incident is the fact that the user group person laughed at my mother while declaring her computer obsolete. Mom wasn't looking for derisive laughter when she sought help to get her beloved computer working again. Yes, the word "obsolete" is pejorative. It demeans those who choose to use older technology. We would all do well to strike the word from our vocabularies. What word or words can be used as a replacement for "obsolete"? In my own vocabulary I use the phrase "older computer" to describe an older computer. For similar reasons I do not use the word "outdated" when describing older computers. Perishable food products become outdated. Human beings, and the tools they choose to use, do not.

No tool is ever outdated if it serves the needs of the person using it. Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets with a quill. Older computers have a place in our world and people who take an interest in educational technology should make special effort to not deride people who choose to use older technology.

This is not to say that modern multimedia computer systems do not offer a tremendous amount of promise. Every reader of Electronic Learning takes great interest in what the newer technology offers our students.

But the wow-appeal of new technology should not blind us to the significant benefits of older technology. And we, as caring educators, need to banish the word "obsolete" from our vocabularies. Pejorative adjectives, whether applied to computers or to human beings, have no place in the classroom - - - or anywhere else for that matter.

If you hear the word "obsolete" being used by someone who is not mindful of its demeaning character, take a moment to explain to them the underlying message in their words. You, as an educator, can help people understand that demeaning characterizations of older technology carries with it the implication that users of that older technology are in some way lesser human beings.


Not so. Not so at all.


-- Phil Shapiro


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