Obsolescence and aging

In the future, a force which has previously not been very significant looks as though it will contribute to the aging process - technological obsolescence.

As organisms become engineered, designs of whole organisms look set to become obsolete, due to the rapid pace of technological progress.

In the past, technological change has typically happend too slowly for it to make much difference within the lifespan of individual organisms. However, technological change is now happening so fast, that many organisms will be out-of-date before they die naturally.

Since the pace of change is increasing, this effect is also likely to accelerate.

Hardware and software

Hardware tends to become obsolete - what about software?

Software also suffers from obsolescence. Software can easily go out of date if it is not vigorously maintained. It can lag in its ability to read file types. It can suffer from security problems as a result of accumulating knowledge by attackers about its vulnerabilities. Alternatively it can be overtaken by other software products with more features.

Software is potentially immortal - and we do have a few examples of very old programs. However, network-aware software can sometimes date much more rapidly than most hardware does, if there are security issues and active attackers.

Protocol changes

In the past, disease genes have been subject to a type of rapid obsolescence - as pathogens tune into individual genotypes.

The engineering world also has its share of pathogens - computer viruses and the like.

However, there is another, related effect: makers of protocols and file formats sometimes find it necessary to "twist and turn" - by making changes to their formats. This helps avoid prospective cloners (who act like parasites) making copyies of their products. It also gets consumers to perform regular upgrades - so that they can read the latest files.

This "churning" generates its own type of rapid obsolescence, not necessarily connected with technological progress.


As well as becoming technologically obsolete, organisms may also simply go out of style.

Organisms going out of fashion is not really a new phenomenon. Sexual selection and female choice have always involved fashion - and the fashions have changed over time.

However the rate of change as fashion has accelerated dramatically, to the point where it is clearly visible detectable within individual lifespans - making senescence due to going out of fashion a more significant factor.

Longevity via modularity

These days, your computer becomes obsolete within a few years of purchase. A lifespan of only a few years represents quite rapid aging.

However rather than throwing the whole system out, if it is sufficiently modular, it may be possible to replace individual components, one at a time. A sufficiently modular system could conceivably conceivably be maintained for an extended period of time by replacing its individual components.

However the chances are still high that the system will wind up being completely replaced at some stage.

This might happen if you got a laptop instead - or decided to go for different form factor. Or if the system needs so much maintenance, that it's simply cheaper to get a new one.

Modularity can save money by increasing lifespan - but it has its drawbacks. It costs money, and introduces interfaces (which reduce performance and decrease reliability). It typically only makes sense in complex, expensive systems. In smaller systems - such as wrist watches - the only modular component is often the battery.

The end of technological evolution?

Will obsolescence due to technological progress come to an end as technological maturity is reached?

Technological progress is unlikely to last for ever. At some point the rate of development will probably slow down - perhaps dramatically.

Will this mean the end of obsolescence due to technological change?

Probably, but perhaps obsolescence due to protocol churning and fashion will still continue.

Effect on the rate of aging

The additional causes of senescence described here will probably combine with the existing known causes of senescence - and act to accelerate the rate of aging in populations.

However, other factors are also involved. Dominant organisms seem likely to become larger, more modular, easier to maintain, and with better immune systems - so the lifespans of the dominant organisms will probably increase.


  1. Tim Tyler - Future senescence

Tim Tyler | http://alife.co.uk/