Let’s think of obsolescence. What does it mean — this lovely, awkward word that you stumble on; a word that’s a tongue-twister and maybe a bit of a mind twister too....
Obsolescence is inevitable. The pen that first wrote this has to run out of ink soon (now, let’s think, is that really obsolescence?). The mind that thinks of these letters and words and sentences will someday grow old and wear out (is that obsolescence?).
But these are not what we really mean by obsolescence, yet we have established, haven’t we, that obsolescence is real — a matter of dry, factual reality.
Perhaps, even as you read this, you are doing so on your laptop. Today, you are very happy with your laptop — it’s small and compact, it doesn’t weigh very much, the memory and graphics are impressive, the speed seems good enough (there are times, though, when you think it could be a tad faster).
It is going to get better — in the very near future. Maybe in a couple of years, maybe in a couple of months, the Asoks (of Dilbert’s world) will develop a laptop that is going to come along and make your present one feel like, well, an untidy piece of tin.
Where and how these improvements will come, we cannot say and I dare say even those in the industry cannot predict with complete accuracy. Product development comes in scheduled doses in the offices of the computer biggies in Silicon Valley, but what of the changes that are sparked off in a boy’s hostel room on a college campus?
But just as inevitably as your laptop obeys your every command, the change will inevitably come and then your laptop will become outdated, archaic, obsolete. It will have reached its final destination. Of course, you will then still have a choice — you can stick fast to your old and faithful or you can upgrade.
This is what I call “real obsolescence”.
In the harsh world of everyday commerce, though, real obsolescence is hard to come by — hard to conceive, hard to finance, and hard to execute. So a new creature has now come into being, one that I have identified as “simulated obsolescence”.
Gupta is from a small village in Uttar Pradesh. His hair and moustache are suspiciously dark, and he wears clothes that are a little shiny. He is known to everybody as Guptaji; he is a man with a big laugh but his eyes are shrewd. Guptaji has done rather well for himself since he came from UP to Mumbai. He owns a string of cold storage stores, has a fleet of trucks and sundry other businesses besides.
Yes, he has done well for himself, and now, he would like to let the world know about it. Guptaji already has a rather comfortable house for himself but he figures that a house is only visible to those who visit him there; he needs a more prominent symbol of his success.
So Guptaji buys himself a car, not just a car but the car. “In the days that I spent on the BEST buses of Mumbai, I would look rather enviously at the cars going by. I bought myself a car soon enough, of course — but there was the one car I always wanted to buy, the Z’Axis.”
Z’Axis… it had a red flag with a lightning bolt as its emblem, and Guptaji so did want it on his car. It cost well over five times the cost of his old one, but he felt it was worth it.
It was. Now, when Guptaji drew up in his new car brandishing the Z’Aaxis logo, he certainly commanded a new respect. “They looked at me differently… sometimes it’s a little difficult to believe that having just a car can do that for you,” he laughs. “Akhir, char paiyya hi toh hai, it’s just four wheels after all....”
Z’Axis, of course, knew all along that it wasn’t selling just four wheels. It was happy that they had made the sale to Guptaji, but the day it made the sale it was unhappy too, for in its books, it had now one less customer to target….
“Or one more?” it wondered.
So, the very day Guptaji bought his car, it set to work to make him a customer once again. The day it sold him his car, it set upon selling him a new one; it was very resolute about it.
“I was really happy with that car… it was a dream come true and it lasted all of three years… and then three years later, the dream just went poof!” Guptaji flourishes his hands dramatically.
Exactly three years after he had bought his car, Z’Axis made a new car… well, it wasn’t a new car exactly, hmm, okay, let’s cut the euphemisms, it was exactly the same car — but they had changed the shape of the tail lights and the boot.
They called it the Z’Axis Dream.
There was a well-orchestrated campaign around the Dream; the city was plastered with hoardings that went “Ooh! Aah! Here’s the Z’Axis Dream!” There were events and there was PR, the whole razzmatazz.
“Lolita Chandra is my favourite actress,” sighs Guptaji. “And she was shown sitting atop the Z’Axis — only it wasn’t my Z’Axis anymore; she was sitting on the Dream….”
“Live the Dream…,” Lolita Chandra whispered to Guptaji; she was sitting atop the car first in the Sahara, then in the African outback, and later, in the ice and snow of Greenland. Guptaji was soon having nightmares about where she would go next.
Guptaji’s neighbour bought into the new Dream and parked it prominently in the building compound. He was very patronising about it, he would refer to Guptaji’s Z’Axis as the old one; he would say, with a kindly smile on his smooth, oily face, “Actually, the old Z’Axis wasn’t that bad....” That was really hard to bear, Guptaji says, grimacing even now at the memory.
Just as he was smarting from the remark, he got a phone call on his lovely LnPi cell phone. “Good morning, Mr Gupta, this is Sandhya calling from Z’Axis…,” cooed the sultry voice, “I am sure you are very happy with your Z’Axis, but by paying the same EMI and by trading in your old car,” Guptaji flinched when he heard the word “old”, “you can be the proud owner of the Dream.”
Guptaji prided himself on being a ruthless businessman; he knew the worth of everything he bought; he had never ever been outdone in a business deal — but he knew when he was beaten…. “Send the car over,” he said in a small voice.
Z’Axis had played the game of “simulated obsolescence” with Guptaji. And won.
They took no prisoners — only his EMI.
Anand Kurian is a writer and advertising professional; the article is adapted from lectures at the Indian Institutes of Management, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design