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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BOOK EXTINCT, recently reviewed here at SimanaitisSays, describes six different categories of extinction: Failed, Superseded, Enforced, Defunct, Aestivated, and Visionary.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.
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Superseded. The authors note, “…a far more typical category proved to be ‘superseded,’ in which an object is overtaken by a more ‘advanced’ model that supposedly performs the same function more efficiently.”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 As a medium of recorded music, tape cassettes were superseded by CDs, just as the latter appear to be giving way to streaming today.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.”
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.”
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.”
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