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Speak Out: How Many Upgrades Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?

By Joseph P. Griffith
ART TIMES July/ August 2012

The phonograph record, developed at the end of the 19th century, was the primary medium for recorded music for more than 100 years. It worked well and everybody liked it. Sure, it scratched or skipped, but the sound could be warm, even breathtaking.

Cassette and eight-track tapes began to supplant records in the early 1960s. Compact discs followed in the early 1980s, then mp3’s in the mid ’90s. Now we have “the cloud.”

Although records have lately made something of a comeback, those other formats have come and gone, or will. A composer once said that new technologies are just a way of selling you the same music over and over. Music companies seem to think so, as they constantly come up with schemes like “licensing fees,” to charge users to play music they already own, in new devices or formats.

For decades, television worked just fine, too, until the government and the electronics industry decided that ordinary analog TV would no longer do. We needed digital TV. Something about opening up more frequencies, or something. For many people who had been perfectly content to watch the normal array of broadcast channels, the switch to digital meant 1) the purchase of a converter and 2) reception that pixilated, wobbled or disappeared altogether every time a plane flew overhead. They then had to pay for cable, which they hadn’t previously needed, just to have a basic television picture.

I recently had to buy a new computer, which meant upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 7. (I managed to bypass Vista altogether, at least on this computer.) As usually happens with any software or operating system upgrade, the product isn’t really any better, only different. Rearranging some features, removing others and adding unnecessary ones don’t necessarily improve it. But the worst part is that many programs that I have been using for years, which cost thousands of dollars, no longer work, and must be replaced, for thousands of new dollars. And Microsoft is preparing to unleash Windows 8. This is supposed to be progress, for them, anyway.

Now the federal government has announced new standards for light bulbs, of all things. Thomas Edison invented the first commercially practical one in 1879, and it worked just fine for almost 135 years. But the new ones must be more energy-efficient. That’s a good thing, right? Only the plan is to let retailers sell all of their remaining stock, and some of them have been sold out for months. In some stores, it’s almost impossible to find a 100-watt light bulb, the first wattage to be affected. The worst part is that the new incandescent bulbs that meet the stricter standards will be much more expensive; longer-lasting light-emitting diodes are considered more of an appliance than a bulb, and cost $25 for a single 60-watt equivalent.

When the Next Big Things happen – new methods of displaying photographs, playing music, viewing films, replacing all the old machines – what will happen to all those billions of family photos in .jpg format, those musical works that aren’t deemed popular enough to be reissued, those memories stored on tapes, discs and computers? Gone with the wind, gone in 60 seconds, terminated. Even libraries, sacred repositories of knowledge and final archives of arcana, are now budget-crunched for space. Critics are outraged at the New York Public Library’s $300-million plan to sell branches, store millions of volumes in New Jersey and turn its beautiful, storied main branch into what amounts to an Internet cafe. To attract new patrons, libraries favor new technologies and media, and discard precious collections of records and books that will never be replaced, that will disappear forever.

Most “upgrades” don’t really constitute progress; they only increase the manufacturer’s revenue stream, formerly known as cash. New software, new media, new devices – they all amount to an old story: You pay more, and get less.

(Joseph P. Griffith is a writer in Yonkers, N.Y.)