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Posted: January 01, 2012

Rundles wrap-up: Auld Lang Syne

Jeff Rundles

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About a year ago my wife, son and I all got new cell phones, and while we didn't go for iPhones because the only extra we really needed was texting, we did go with what the clerk at the cell-phone store called "the latest and greatest short of a smart phone."

Then my wife dropped hers in a commode, and, seeking the same phone as a replacement only to be told they didn't carry that phone anymore, the clerk at the same store looked at us as though we were dinosaurs.

"Basically, this phone is crap," he said.

"You told me it was the latest and greatest when I bought it six months ago," I pointed out.

"Now it's crap," he added, emotionlessly.

The same thing, of course, happens when a television breaks down or a dishwasher conks out, or a water heater goes cold. There used to be repair places and people, but mostly now they just tell you to buy a new one.

When I was a little kid in the 1950s my parents got a telephone, and it was still in our house when I went off to college in the 1970s, and it worked great. For my home phone today - which, come to think of it, is somewhat of a dinosaur anyway - I have to get a new one about every year or so. My mother also had the same refrigerator for about 25 years and only got a new one because people criticized her for having a relic. It worked fine. The new one was great for the décor, but it only lasted about eight years.

And just this last week I had to put in a new sewer system in my home. It has all the very latest modern pipe, impervious to tree roots and all, and the company gave me a 50-year warranty on parts, 10 years on labor. That's great, but the "old-fashioned, terrible" ceramic pipe that was down there was installed in 1914; 98 years ago instead of warranties they just built things right.

I am not knocking modern technology per se; some of it is absolutely amazing. Indeed, if you could take a 2012 television set back to 1956, people's eyes would pop out of their heads. But they would also be horrified that the life expectancy of a TV would only be a few years, at best. I was thinking about an old "News From Lake Wobegone" bit by Garrison Keillor where one of the Norwegian bachelor farmers couldn't get a new car because the old one refused to die no matter how much neglect he offered it.

Not only did we used to expect high quality and longevity in the things in our lives, we didn't replace them until we had no choice in spite of what a newer model offered in improvements. I guess you could say the same thing about marriage back then.

It's funny, but my friends and I, as rebellious young people, used to criticize corporate America for a policy of "planned obsolescence." Our society was then capable of building things so well - building things to last - that we figured greedy corporate types had to reverse engineer their own products to remove the stamina lest they never sell any new products. Who knew that all you really had to do was make these products in China and, voila!, you could build cheap in right from the start. Our children don't understand the concept of "planned obsolescence," since for them obsolescence is a way of life.

When it comes to this time of year - the New Year - we all look for the promise to come and reflect on what's past, the auld lang syne as it were. OK. I look for permanence, stability, last-ability, but I guess, to tap a much-used modern phrase, that's all so 27 seconds ago.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Who now has old acquaintances?
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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