Simanaitis Says

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HOW TO BECOME EXTINCT

THE FASCINATING BOOK EXTINCT, recently reviewed here at SimanaitisSays, describes six different categories of extinction: Failed, Superseded, Enforced, Defunct, Aestivated, and Visionary. Here are tidbits about these criteria and examples of each type. 

Categorizing particular extinctions is, to use the German term, a good Gedankenexperiment, a “thought experiment.” You’re encouraged to add examples of your own.

Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, edited by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner, and Miranda Critchley, Reaktion Books, 2021.

Enforced. Penner et al. say enforced extinctions are the most clear-cut and easily traced: “… cases where extinction is brought about by central shifts in government policy or by regulating bodies, whose intervention proves decisive either in terms of eradicating an object or practice or in promoting one type of technology or infrastructure over another.”

Though not cited in Extinction, I’d put leaded motor fuels as an example of enforced extinction. Back in 1921, tetraethyl lead was discovered as an excellent antiknock agent. A good story, possibly even true: A TEL salesman would dose his tie with this mysterious liquid, then wave the tie over the carburetor of a Model T with its ignition overly advanced. The knocking would cease.

Woe be to the salesman, though: Accumulative neurotoxicity of lead was, and remains, a serious problem. It took a long time in coming, but as cited by Wikipedia, “In July 2021, Algeria—the last country to sell leaded gasoline—had halted its sale.” Much of the developed world banned it by 2000 because of TEL’s incompatibility with automotive catalytic converters.

Failed. The authors expected “failed” to be a large category. “Yet,” they write, “only a few case studies in these pages—most famously Concorde—died because of catastrophic and spectacular technological failure.” 

Superseded. The authors note, “…a far more typical category proved to be ‘superseded,’ in which an object is overtaken by a more ‘advanced’ model that supposedly performs the same function more efficiently.” 

I’d put the tape cassette in this category. (Though pictured on the Extinct cover, it isn’t explicitly discussed). As a medium of recorded music, tape cassettes were superseded by CDs, just as the latter appear to be giving way to streaming today. 

Aestivated. The authors say, “In the natural world, ‘aestivated’ refers to a state of dormancy, in which organism wait out hostile conditions before reviving.” (For instance, some seeds aestivate until fires encourage them to sprout.)

Extinct cites heat storage through phase-change chemicals as an example of aestivated technology: “The early post-war period brought numerous and varied elaborations of heat-storage methods. At stake was the refinement of passive solar systems, where solar energy was used to heat a storage medium (air or water were the defaults) that would in turn heat a space.” 

This and the following images from Extinct.

A binge of fossil fuels confounded the economics of such technology—until the urgency of climate change. Today, it’s being considered as one means of storing renewable energy.

Defunct. “Sometimes,” the authors write, “defunct objects never take off owing to a misreading of the market or a lack of consumer buy-in. Some cannot be mass-produced or continue to operate at reasonable cost; others require infrastructure that is never built.”

Telephone table, manufactured by Ercol Ltd., mid-20th century, teak.

The defunct category includes Kodachrome film, the integrated radio/TV cabinet, and the telephone table, both mid-century home furnishings. I am tempted to include, albeit prematurely, charge-as-you-drive-EV roadways. And (ouch, one of my favorites) fuel-cell EVs in any but heavy-truck applications.   

Visionary. Extinct objects, the authors write, “can operate equally as containers of potential and of provocation—and arguably they are most compelling when seen in this light…. Some are experimental, playfully exploring technical possibilities; others set out to articulate different, more liberated visions of future designs or of society.” 

ConvAirCar, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, manufactured by Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company, 1947.

Extinct cites the ConvAirCar and the North Bucks Monorail City as visionary objects. It also notes, “Occasionally, they serve as a teasing commentary on progress itself: ‘Edison’s Anti-gravitation Under-clothing’ mocks the reverence for heroic inventors in a way that still sticks, given our ongoing faith in corporate techno-optimists such as Bill Gates or Elon Musk to solve the world’s problems.”

All, good sources for Gedankenexperiments. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022

9 comments on “HOW TO BECOME EXTINCT

  1. I would add several to the list:
    Paper-based magazines and newspapers. They’re increasingly becoming obsolete. I love the freedom of electronic versions, but I cherish the dwindling opportunities to dwaddle over a paper version of the complete Sunday New York Times (even though I read the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Wired, The New Yorker, The Cape Cod Times and many other pubs online.)
    There is something to say about the visceral qualities of paper-based information and amusement, something more immersive than the glass screen alternatives.
    I’ve come to appreciate all crossword puzzles and similar in electronic versions — far more appealing than the paper versions. How many paper versions let you cheat after all, by asking for a “check” or “reveal?”
    I subscribe 7×24 to the paper New York Times, but there are many times when I am not in the city where I have it delivered so I go to various places to try to get it.
    A clerk in the closest Whole Paycheck — er Foods — near the condo I use in the city told me no one reads paper papers anymore. That means that when I am in the city on Sundays, Whole Paycheck never gets my business anymore.
    So how long will paper hold on? 20 years maybe? Then we’ll deal with other media platforms, all far more fleeting than newspapers and paper magazines.
    Life goes on!
    (And Dennis, I love your blog!)

    • simanaitissays
      May 9, 2022

      My experience is not unlike yours: Sunday NYT print, otherwise monitor NYT and VOA daily online and BBC World Service on Sirius XM. Daughter Suz and I do the Sunday NYT crossword together (for more than a year now, initially telephonically, then in person once double-shot etc.). I use paper; she uses her cell phone. She eschews cheats/hints, but delights in the timing stats and little tricks that appear upon correct completion.
      I continue to be a book person (at least in part because I grow weary of screens of any kind, what with the website research/composition and my GMax time-gobbling). I never did buy into Kindle and the like, though I confess to Audible books now and again, especially as “a little night music.”
      Thanks sincerely for your kind words.

  2. stylumdesign
    May 9, 2022

    Can’t forget reading stuff like this in the pages of R&T. Future propositions, technical possibilities, new behaviors… we can only guess what effect all this had in the impressionable mind of an eight years old nerd. Forty years later I’m an innovation buff in part because of you. Thanks again

  3. sabresoftware
    May 10, 2022

    Ah yes the tape cassette, and even better(worse) the eight track cartridge. It has become “conspicuous” by its absence from roadsides with yards of tape disgorged from the cartridge!

    I do confess that most of my book reading is now on my iPad. Recently read Churchill’s WWII memoirs where he used many words that I needed to look up, which is easy to do on the iPad just by highlighting and doing a lookup. Also with bookmarking I can continue reading on the iPhone while waiting at an appointment. Still I do like real books too and keep a few in my collection.

    • Mike B
      May 10, 2022

      I have a couple of cassette decks still, including one hooked up to the computer, and some tapes to go with them. But to listen to them in a car now, I have to rip them to either CD (the old Prius), or a USB stick or my phone (the Chevy EV). The cassettes still play and sound pretty good (to my old, non-audiophile ears), but I agree that for practical purposes they’re a dead format. Vinyl now…

  4. Mike B
    May 10, 2022

    I have to quibble about the Concorde. Its catastrophic crash was caused by FOD which shredded a tire which caused more FOD entering an engine can causing a fire, and there it went. The Concorde’s true reason for extinction was that, while technically successful, it never really made enough money to cover its cost of operation. It used too much fuel, was too noisy to operate other than on a very few routes, didn’t carry enough load, required a lot of maintenance, etc. As a status symbol, it had value for its all-first-class passengers, but the airlines were (and are) in the business of making money, not flying status symbols. So the first-classers ended up with their section of a 747, arriving at the same time as the people in back.

    Now, you want a real extinct dinosaur, try the ocean liner (not cruise, real passenger traffic).

    • simanaitissays
      May 10, 2022

      Agreed, Mike. Indeed, though the authors use the Concorde as a “Failed” example, its essay (by Thomas McQuillan, professor of architecture) opens with “In extinction, it’s not the objects that fail. It’s the world that supported them that has gone.” He gives full details of the debris-induced crash, (Concorde’s only crash in 24 years, he notes), but also its societal controversies, including development cost of $2400/passenger figured over its lifetime, verses 28¢/passenger for the Boeing 747.
      By the way, your passenger liner comment is well noted, especially as nothing has superseded its long-distance luxury.

  5. Jack Albrecht
    May 11, 2022

    I get ads here in Europe for flying cars. We have lots of short hop travel and congested roads (particularly in summer). Two kinds of cars are being shown, the actual flying car:

    and newer are single person drones:

    Cool concepts. The first seems mildly feasible. It is something I could have used when I was commuting between Vienna and Delft for a few years. There are no flights between Vienna and Rotterdam. Rotterdam is 15 km from Delft, but I had to fly to Amsterdam and take the train to Delft. It definitely would have been cool to drive to the Vienna airport, fly to Rotterdam, then drive to Delft. IIRC the distance is still too far for my historical need, but maybe someday.

    The personal drone just looks like a logistical nightmare for anything more than hobby flights.

  6. sabresoftware
    May 12, 2022

    Flying cars kind of scare me. It’s difficult enough for many drivers to maintain the roadway in a two dimensional world.

    There’s a house in our neighbourhood that has been hit by wayward cars a few times due to the curve in the road beside their place. The city erected a speed bump which really does nothing, but the home owner installed a big rock in their landscaping that would effectively stop a wayward vehicle. I imagine they would shudder if vehicle impact could also come from above.

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