And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859
History is filled with objects that once populated the world, but do so no longer. Some artifacts and technologies that have disappeared were once ubiquitous; others barely made it into existence, not much more than an idea or prototype. Here we are interested not simply in why some things — even once very familiar things — have disappeared, but in what their disappearance tells us about the world we have created for ourselves.
The process of the disappearance of objects and technology, ranging in scale from tools and equipment to structures and infrastructures, is sometimes referred to as obsolescence, and sometimes — and this is the description we have chosen to focus on — as extinction. Both terms contain assumptions about how and why things disappear, while neglecting other, no less pertinent, possibilities. “Extinction” is explicitly a borrowing from theories of natural selection and evolution, and, like all analogies, makes certain things clearer, while obscuring others. The economist Amartya Sen warns, “Darwin’s general idea of progress … can have the effect of misdirecting our attention, in ways that are crucial in the contemporary world.“ 1
The extinction of even an insignificant design points to a road not taken, a future rerouted or unrealized.
One particular obfuscation that arises when Darwin’s ideas of evolution are applied to artifacts is the assumption that it is only the fittest, the best, or the most appropriate objects and technology that survive. In this model, design, like nature, is thought to be an optimization machine, always pushing forward — progressing towards perfection. When things disappear, they do so, it is implied, because of their own inadequacy or their unsuitedness to their conditions. Yet extinct objects can help us to recall other ways and possibilities of engaging with the world. Why are extinct objects suited for this task? We suggest that technology and products, at the moment of their invention, must all project forward in some way. The very act of designing and manufacturing is anticipatory; to be conceived of and to be produced, a thing is necessarily imprinted with an idea of future needs, demands, or ways of living which it may then help to bring about. As the architectural theorists Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley observe, “Design is a form of projection, [it is] to shape something rather than find it, to invent something and think about the possible outcomes of that invention.” 2 This projected vision of the future may not be heroic or utopian; indeed, it is more often mundane and humble. But in this light the extinction of even an insignificant design points to a road not taken, a future rerouted or unrealized.
Technology narratives tend to focus on innovation; but they become far richer when we consider the underside of progress, the cast-offs and dead-ends.
In considering extinct things, we encounter the ghosts of futures that never came to pass, their projections having proved to be unfounded, short-lived, misguided. Extinct objects continue to retain the imprint of possible futures, some of which we may be glad to have left behind and others whose relevance we are perhaps recovering. To study extinct objects is also to cast new light on the present. Narratives of technology tend to be innovation-focused and do not pay much attention to cast-offs or dead-ends; they emphasize novelty and vision and are infused with a sense of destiny. But the history of objects becomes far richer when we also consider the underside of progress: the conflicts, obsolescence, accidents, destruction, and failures that have been such an integral part of modernization and its modes of operation.
Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, eight years after the Great Exhibition in London. More than any other single event, the Great Exhibition serves as an index to the material transformations that accompanied industrialization, the shift to factory production and the harnessing of new power sources. Not only did the exhibition — the world’s first “world’s fair” — showcase the technological advances and goods of the previous two decades; it also presaged developments to come, most memorably through the construction of the Crystal Palace, the immense structure that housed the exhibition while also demonstrating the revolutionary potential of iron, glass, and prefabrication.
Many of the contradictions and paradoxes of industrial capitalism were fully on view at the Great Exhibition. With its roster of international displays, the exhibition promoted a liberal ideology of free trade and open markets; yet with its strong colonial presence, it signaled dependence on export and import commodities, captive markets, and cheap labor. From the start, it was obvious that the prosperity on display at the Great Exhibition would never be equally distributed. And, for those who cared to see it, the terrible human and environmental costs of the new methods of manufacture and urbanization were already evident, if not in the Crystal Palace itself, then in its immediate environs, the streets of London.
Evolutionary theory and progress narratives played a crucial role in modernization: they naturalized the impact of capitalism and ensured its spread.
In light of these contradictions, we begin to understand that evolutionary theory and narratives of progress had a crucial role to play in modernization: they were required to naturalize the impact of capitalism and to ensure its continued spread. This was certainly the view of the cultural historian Lewis Mumford, who, in his monumental Technics and Civilization, from 1934, argued that the function of evolutionary theory in industrial society was not to explain technical change, but to normalize the inequities produced by capitalism. In the Darwinian model, the enrichment of the bourgeoisie became proof of their strength and their right to exploit the labor of those supposedly weaker than themselves. Mumford observed that the phrase “the survival of the fittest” was a tautology — “for survival was taken as the proof of fitness”; but he also notes, sardonically, that this “did not decrease its usefulness.” 3
For the most part, narratives of progress were able to sweep such concerns aside. Against what Mumford called “tooth and claw” accounts of Victorian social order, a more benign account of capitalism emerged that held — and continues to hold — that the system lifts up those places where it settles, rippling out to bring jobs and improve basic living conditions for all. In particular, technical innovations and infrastructural improvements are positioned as the mechanism by which the benefits of capitalism are delivered; as they bring about greater ease of movement and more rapid communication, so the theory goes, they help to create a better informed, more equal, and less restive populace.
When set against such ostensible advantages, resistance to progress, or skepticism about its effects, can easily be positioned as dangerous and perverse. The philosophe Denis Diderot, who believed absolutely that mechanical invention would underwrite the general advance of humankind, described his bewilderment at those who stood in the way of progress. “How bizarre is the working of the human mind! … The mind distrusts its powers. It stumbles in self-created difficulties.” Diderot justified his own epic Encylopédie, which from 1752 onwards compiled hundreds of engravings of manufacturing technologies, with the claim that “our descendants, by becoming better instructed, may as a consequence be more virtuous and happier.” 4 Although most of the trades and industries that Diderot captured so painstakingly — including glassblowing, tapestry weaving, leather tanning, bookbinding, soap-making, goldsmithing, et al. — would be transformed or rendered obsolete with the coming of the steam age, the faith in progress that he articulated helped to lay the ground for it.
We find faith in progress everywhere by the mid-19th century. It was a staple of boosterish mass-market publications such as the Illustrated London News, which were firmly pro-development and documented vast metropolitan improvements in images that did much to cement the popular idea of visionary Victorian engineering. When applied to what Diderot called “the mechanical arts” — a broad category that included everything from agriculture to basalt mining to iron founding — the emergent idea of extinction, and the corresponding belief in perfectibility, portrayed technological development as a kind of internally propelled force, at once irresistible and positive.
Giedion describes industrial designs as emerging naturally from mechanical developments, through an impersonal evolutionary process.
We see this idea at work in the writing of the influential modernist design historian Sigfried Giedion. In Mechanization Takes Command, published in 1948 and one of the few accounts of the industrial arts that approaches the Encyclopédie in its ambition, Giedion discusses the formal and stylistic evolution of everyday designs in implicitly Darwinian terms. In one typical passage, he uses heroic language to describe the struggle by which the washbasin achieves its proper form: “Like a kernel emerging from its shell, the washbasin through the decades breaks loose from its envelope of furniture.” Giedion sees abandonment of the Victorian “weakness for adornment” as fitting and inevitable given the advance of industrial improvements. “Only with the advent of mass-produced enamel and earthenware,” he explains, “could natural forms truly pierce through.”
The model of change in this passage is striking. The designed products of industrial processes are described as if they emerge naturally from mechanical developments; no human agents are involved (hence Giedion claims that his history is “anonymous”). Natural — that is, modern — forms are established through an impersonal evolutionary process, which is linear and one-way. Old forms are to be shed and left behind; later in the same passage, Giedion speaks despairingly of trends to re-encase bathroom equipment in furniture as “backsliding,” retrograde and unnatural. 5 The question of the washbasin’s adornment becomes charged with moralism: progress in design is equated with social progressiveness; the unadorned washbasin confirms the forward march of civilization.
Following the Second World War, consumerism reached new heights, spurred on by the corporate embrace of ‘planned obsolescence.’
The ideas underpinning the evolutionary model of technological innovation did not pass unchallenged. Following the Second World War, a flood of innovations was released, from injection-molded plastics to Polaroid cameras, which drove consumerism to new heights, spurred on by the corporate embrace of “planned obsolescence” or, we might say, planned extinction, whereby one product model was phased out to encourage the purchase of another. By the 1960s, organized opposition to such strategies was gathering force. Counter-cultural movements in particular raised objections to the loss of traditional skills, artisanal occupations, and social relations, and to the waste of natural resources that accompanied capitalist production.
Few designers rejected new development entirely, but many embraced the idea of appropriate technology and sought to create products that were less resource-hungry and more responsive to local communities. In his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful, the economist E. F. Schumacher, the guru of the appropriate technology movement, identified the tendency of Western observers to impose Western criteria of success — standards of consumption, value systems, behavior patterns — onto countries characterized by very different conditions, constraints, and cultures. Thus even as once colonized countries were achieving independence, international development agencies were promoting technological fixes that tended to reassert colonial power dynamics. By emphasizing local solutions and indigenous expertise, proponents of appropriate technology sought to disrupt the naturalized flow of “progress” from “center” to “periphery.”
Historians of design also began to question the evolutionary model — to debunk Giedion’s biological theory of mechanization and to focus upon the accountability of humans and their choices. 6 Feminist scholars insisted that design histories were remiss in emphasizing the technical side of production and ignoring the perceived preferences and responses of consumers. 7 Historians associated with actor-network theory traced the interconnected and diffuse human and non-human actors who usher in — or fail to usher in — technological innovation. Most recently, the ways in which Social Darwinism and eugenics have shaped industrial design, architecture, and urban planning have been exposed and fiercely denounced by those who study race and the exclusionary nature of the built environment. 8
The rise of digital technology has further enshrined the belief in progress and worship of innovation. We live in an age of product drops and continual upgrades.
But in spite of such resistance, evolutionary models retain their allure in contemporary culture. In fact, the rise of computing, automation, and artificial intelligence has only further enshrined the belief in progress and worship of technological innovation. We live in an age of highly publicized product drops and continual upgrades. One reason for the endurance of an evolutionary model may lie in how patents are registered in the first place; the requirement that each invention cite “prior art,” that is, precedents from which it has drawn, reinforces the idea of innovation as a genetic chain. But more generally, as the historian Jill Lepore observes, narratives of unceasing innovation reflect the vested interests of those who tell/sell them: “People who are in the business of selling predictions need to present the past as predictable … and in histories written by futurists the machines just keep coming.” 9
Our own skepticism towards accounts of uninterrupted innovation has been significantly informed by the historian David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old. In this seminal work from 2006, Edgerton demolishes typical narratives of technological progress mainly by tracing which technologies are in actual widespread use around the world. As he argues, moving away from innovation-centric history towards a use-centered perspective not only challenges simplistic notions of progress; it also forces us to acknowledge which inventions have had the most substantive impact on modernity. Edgerton’s own catalog of significant technology comprises many objects that do not usually make the top-ten lists of “inventions that changed the world”; it includes “the rickshaw, the condom, the horse, the sewing machine, the spinning wheel, the Haber-Bosch process, the hydrogenation of coal, cemented-carbide tools, bicycles, corrugated iron, cement, asbestos, DDT, the chain saw, and the refrigerator.” 10
To enter the world of extinct objects is to enter the world of the undead, where there is little that has expired completely.
Edgerton observes that older technology quietly survives almost everywhere because it is readily available and cheap to operate, or very well suited to local conditions. It is, in fact, difficult to find things that are truly extinct. To enter the world of extinct objects is to enter the world of the undead, where there is little that has expired completely. Many objects become dormant, waiting to be revived in another form or another place as circumstances change. And many leave residual traces, in the form of design features, or skeuomorphs, that persist after the object or technology itself is gone. Digital culture is replete with designs that are skeuomorphic, ranging from the graphical user interface of the computer “desktop,” with its files and folders and waste bin, to the format of email, with its recipient and “cc” fields, which recalls the layout of print-era memos. 10
Another of Edgerton’s key insights concerns the fictitiousness of the linearity that underpins narratives of progress. Technology and design do not advance smoothly or uninterruptedly; they proceed unevenly, in starts and stops, often looping back or leaping tracks to pick up some strand of development abandoned long ago. And now, in the Anthropocene, with its emphasis on deep geological time, the concept of extinction becomes even more complex: climate change has accelerated extinctions of all kinds, and yet we know that our traces will long endure. Extinction is not obliteration. As the environmental writer David Farrier puts it, ‘The entire atmosphere now bears the marks of our passage, like a vast geochemical trace fossil of the journeys we have taken and the energy we have consumed.” 12 Many objects continue in use even after production ceases. Others are kept alive by hobbyists and collectors who prize them for their nostalgia value. Many endure as attractions in museums of design and technology; R. Buckminster Fuller produced only two prototypes of his 1946 Dymaxion House, but one is on permanent exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. 13
So long as we know how something works, it is always, in theory, possible to revive it or to implant it elsewhere. Few objects die because of some catastrophic failure as, for instance, the Concorde did when a fiery crash exposed the unsustainability of the supersonic jet that catered to an elite clientele. 14 It is far more typical for something to be superseded, overtaken by a more “advanced” model that supposedly performs the same function more efficiently. Thus the slide rule has given way to the electronic calculator; the Trombe wall has been marginalized by photovoltaics; consumer film cameras like the Instamatic and Polaroid SX-70 have been swept away in the smartphone era; and The Clapper, a sound-activated switch for appliances marketed in the 1980s as “affordable home automation,” has been rendered quaint by the arrival of Alexa and Siri. 15
Extinction causes not only objects to disappear but also networks of related skills, habits, and associations.
Yet new models often perform their functions quite differently; which means, crucially, that extinction causes not only objects to disappear but also networks of related skills, habits, and associations. This is one reason why innovations are sometimes resisted or adopted only slowly — and why some industrial designers insist that, in order to be accepted, new products must be infused with elements of the old. With another nod to Darwin, the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss dubbed this “survival form.” Even Dreyfuss, however, could not overcome fears associated with personal mobility in the skies: despite its reassuring resemblance to existing cars, his prototype flying automobile, ConvAirCar, literally ran out of fuel on a test flight in the mid-1940s and the whole project faltered. 16
Extinction is most clear-cut when it is brought about by shifts in government policy or by regulatory bodies.
Extinction is most clear-cut when it is brought about — effectively enforced — by central shifts in government policy or by regulatory bodies, whose intervention serves either to eradicate an object or practice, or to promote one type of technology or infrastructure over another. The stated reasons might be economic or environmental, or they could be the result of political decisions. Many of these objects remain viable technologically, and might remain in limited use, but the associated risks or costs are no longer deemed acceptable and they are clearly on their way out. A prime example of this sort of extinction is the public disappearance of the once ubiquitous ashtray as a result of public health policies that sought to discourage cigarette smoking; likewise, the incandescent bulb, the dominant source of indoor illumination for more than a century, is falling victim to governmental demands for more efficient lighting sources. 17
A great number of extinctions, however, are not enforced. Some objects, especially commercial products, simply become defunct when it turns out that they cannot be readily mass-produced or operate at reasonable cost. Others never take off owing to a misreading of the market or a lack of consumer buy-in: consider the Sinclair C5, a battery-powered recumbent bicycle launched by British industrial entrepreneur Clive Sinclair in the mid-1980s, that was immediately met with scathing reviews and consumer apathy. 18 Others require larger infrastructure that is never built, a particular problem for dependent forms of transport such as flying boats. 19
Still others are found to pose dangers to users. This was the fate of the Invacar, the small, motorized, three-wheeled “invalid carriage” developed in Britain after the Second World War; after several decades of production, underwritten by the National Health Service, it was officially recalled in 2003 due to concerns about safety and cost. (The outlawed vehicles are now being purchased by an American collector. 20) Many objects simply fall victim to shifting fashions and aesthetics, although they may continue to circulate as curios. And sometimes practices associated with the use of certain objects survive even after the objects themselves become redundant. The optical telegraph, for instance, was all but abandoned after the Napoleonic wars; it nonetheless established a form of communication — the public performance of private messaging — that is widespread today. 21
The dougong became defunct in the era of Western imperialism, when wood structures were displaced by supposedly superior iron and steel constructions.
In cases where extinctions are planned — for instance, when objects are legislated out of existence — the usual justification is some public good or benefit, and thus the extinction itself becomes proof of progress, tautologically reconfirming the rightness and modernity of the evolutionary model. Some extinctions do seem progressive: it is hard to argue against the obsolescence of, say, the leucotome, a mid-20th-century surgical instrument used for performing lobotomies that was phased out as the operation was increasingly criticized as inhumane. 22 Yet too often these enforced extinctions seem arbitrary and ideological. To cite an architectural example: the dougong, the timber structural assembly that resulted in the traditional Chinese roof, became defunct in the era of Western imperialism, when wood structures were displaced by supposedly superior iron and steel constructions. But the dougong also suggests the complex afterlives of extinct things. Starting in the mid-20th century, the dougong was revived by both local and foreign architects in an effort to design buildings that would be not only “modern” but also Chinese. Now rendered in stone or concrete, and appreciated for its symbolic rather than its structural function, the dougong has become a formal icon of “Chineseness.” 23
Extinction underscores the contingency of industrial process and progress, the sheer range of forces that must align for any technology to succeed.
Extinction underscores the changeability and contingency of industrial process and progress, the sheer range of forces that must align for any particular technology to succeed. This point is driven home through the example of electric vehicles. Early models appeared more than a century ago, including the “Hummingbird” taxi, produced by a British manufacturer in the 1890s and meant to counter the ill effects of the “insanitary horse.” (The nickname was due to the humming sound made by the motor.) A century later, following the development of the lithium-ion battery in the 1980s, electric vehicles were produced by manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe; one especially ambitious model was the Think City electric vehicle, launched by a Norwegian company in 1998 and produced almost entirely with recycled materials. 24 These early versions were workable and appealing because they promised to improve the environment. Yet none took; arguably they were ahead of their time, dependent upon power infrastructures that were not yet widespread and thus demanding too much commitment from both consumers and investors.
Today, of course, Tesla is sweeping the field; and while it is tempting to attribute the company’s success to the quality of its designs or even the star-power of its founder, its current predominance is clearly the result of a confluence of factors, at once economic, technical, environmental, political, and social. Especially in light of the innovations of earlier designs — Think City aimed to be as environmentally sustainable in its production techniques as in the performance of its cars — it’s hard to regard the Tesla as the optimal electric vehicle.
In compiling charge sheets of deferred opportunities and losses, however, we risk missing the larger value of extinct objects. Inevitably, to study extinction is to run up against limits: the constraints of cost, the lack of political will, the inherent conservatism of markets, the collective failure of imagination. But extinct objects can operate equally as containers of potential and of provocation. They can act as stores or repositories, representing not only specific technologies but also other ways of thinking, making, and interacting with the world, other attitudes towards the body, crafts, copies, beauty, art, communications, movement, leisure, love, class, cultural identity, and nature. Ultimately, every extinct object embodies a vision of the future, a vision that, even if the object itself is gone, remains in some way available to us.