Planning for Obsolescence
Our eventual irrelevance is the ultimate measure of our success.
It is a discomforting reality that to truly impact the world requires a willingness to become obsolete.
There is a tension between trying to solve a problem and the human tendency to fuse one’s identity and reputation to being the person trying to solve the problem. Our drive for self-preservation creates the incentives to indirectly perpetuate the problem that we are trying to solve in the first place. Many of the problems that exist around us today are not because they are too difficult to solve, but because someone has allowed their desire to be known as the person working on a problem overcome the desire to actually solve it.
Anyone who wants to solve a problem must plan for obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence ensures that one divorces themselves from the path they are on and achieves complete irrelevance once solving the issue. This is a similar concept to Fanaa’ in Tasawuf. Planned obsolescence not only ensures one remains committed to solving the issue but also leads to a second, perhaps more disquieting thought: not only must we become obsolete, but also accept that whatever happens after the journey has ended is out of our hands. For the practitioners of Tasawuf, this was necessary to achieve a complete consciousness of the Oneness of God.
For those concerned with more mundane matters, it means that the true mark of success is in relinquishing personal control over a matter instead of retaining control because we desire self-preservation.
The American sci-fi writer Frank Herbert created the Dune universe as a set of cautionary tales against heroes and cults of personality. Less well understood is the teleology of the Dune universe which is summed up in the ‘Golden Path’ embarked on by Emperor Leto Atreides.1 It is a grand and eccentric example of planning for obsolescence: Leto embarks on a three thousand year mission to ensure the survival of the human race, among other things becoming a giant prescient man-worm, and isolating, starving, and oppressing countless worlds populated by the human race. All this is done with the aim to create in the human race a sense of self-determination that eventually leads to the Scattering: humanity finally explodes across and beyond the boundaries of the known universe and into the great darkness, their fates now separated but also ensuring that in some corner, humanity may survive. Humanity is freed from the extinction-level threat that comes from having their fates bound too closely together, especially by closely-tied institutions (such as the Emperor himself).
In contrast, Paul’s failure to accept obsolescence by embarking on the Golden Path and his unwitting role in the great Fremen jihad in which billions are killed and dozens of planets annihilated are a result of his failure to divorce his cult of personality from the cause he ostensibly served.2 Paul became the problem he was trying to solve.
It takes a great work of fiction to concisely demonstrate what a greater number of factual case studies from history may struggle to achieve.
Yet, there are poignant examples. Malik Bennabi’s life work was to diagnose the loss of vitality in Islamic civilisation, and one of his most important conclusions was that the Muslim world suffered from ‘civilisational bankruptcy’: the inability to produce new ideas, to have a safe space for creativity, and to be rewarded for that creativity. Bennabi’s students are also occupied with similar questions as to why Islamic civilisation fell into a stupor and were conquered by European empires. However, the real question to ask is: why is his work still relevant today? It would grieve Bennabi to know that nearly a century after his works, they have failed to ignite the civilisational revival that would have resulted in his own obsolescence. Bennabi should have been a man of his time. If his intention was to solve the problems he diagnosed, he is all too painfully relevant today.
Nowhere is the lack of planning for obsolescence more consequential than in the work most proximate to the core problems of humanity: poverty, war, health, and so on. Here, legions of the hopeful enter with little to no interrogation of one’s intentions, a problem which eventually infects and paralyses the institutions ostensibly established to solve a particular problem. The NGOs tackling everything from lack of clean water to global health pandemics quickly become non-functional institutions revolving around the cults of personality of its core groups and their leaders, whose identities and source of purpose now comes from being known for working on a problem instead of actually solving that problem. They are trapped, for solving the problem would result in their obsolescence which they have not planned for and do not desire. Obsolescence is a terrifying prospect: that we are not as important as we think we are; that our visions once incubated in our bosoms and unleashed on the world eventually take a path of their own, often in the hands of others.
What separates people known for working on a problem from people actually trying to solve that problem is planning for and achieving obsolescence. The latter is a rarer character to find in history. Their planned obsolescence shrouds their deeds.
A personal anecdote may drive home the point of this essay. I am writing on a specific set of problems to which I intend to propose remedies. The greatest success I can hope for is to become obsolete; that if my remedies do not work, someone else picks up the problem and solves it with their own methods. If I do succeed, I will become irrelevant anyhow, a relic of my own time, drawn on as a metaphor when history rhymes and people need inspiration. The last thing I should desire is for history to repeat itself and the problems that I faced are somehow perpetuated by my hand to be a burden on later generations.
In my case, planned obsolescence means igniting the conversation but not trying to monopolise it as my raison d’etre and fusing my identity and personality to this path. If the substance of my work is to become obsolete, at least the spirit with which I write should be free of me and scatter across the universe, escaping my human but counterproductive desire for self-preservation through the work I do.
Interrogating someone’s intentions is rarely a useful endeavour. We barely know our own. In a world where the lines are blurred, the least we must ask ourselves is: do we want to become famous for working on a problem, or plan for obsolescence to actually solve it even at the risk of our reputation and purpose?
If the answer isn’t clear, then we should reassess whether or not we should try to solve a problem in the first place.
Leto is the son of Paul Atreides, who we have become familiar with thanks to his portrayal by Timothée Chalamet in Daniel Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of the first Dune book.
The later books, which will likely not be turned into film adaptations, portray Paul as a victim of his own hubris, and his name is the excuse with which religious missionaries, imperial statesmen, and warriors kill and oppress countless people.
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