Technical Obsolescence and the Art of Living on the Cheap

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It is always fascinating (albeit a little sad) to watch a venerable old technology fall into obsolescence. Remember vinyl discs and LPs? They dominated the recording industry for decades. Then compact cassettes dealt them as serious blow in the 1970s and compact discs delivered the coup de grce in the 1980s. Of course, LPs and turntables did not physically disappear — there are still quite a few diehard LP fans out there who praise their analog sound as more natural and soulful than anything digital devices are capable of producing. Nonetheless, LPs are now a niche technology.

We live in an era when the speed of technological obsolescence accelerated dramatically. Quite a few venerable and perfectly usable technologies suddenly became overshadowed by hot newcomers. Just as with LPs, old technologies did not suddenly stop working. There are still capable of producing decent results; more importantly, they are now quite inexpensive if not downright dirt-cheap!

Andrew S. Fischer recently argued that with judicious spending even people on modest income could afford dignified living. If one doesn't mind using newly obsolete technologies, living on the cheap becomes a more realistic proposition. Let's consider a few examples.

CRT Television Sets. Amazingly enough, the cathode ray tube technology was invented in 1897 (!!!) and dominated the television market until three or four years ago. Projection TVs were around for quite a while, but had a small market share. Suddenly, LCD and plasma TVs came of age. With their prices falling, CRT TVs are in their last throes. What does this mean to a price-conscious consumer on a budget? Great deals! After just five minutes of browsing, I found several excellent used TV deals e.g. a Magnavox 27-inch color TV in excellent condition for $100 or a Magnavox 19-inch TV for $15! When I was a poor MBA student in 1991, an affluent and generous friend sold me his 9-inch color TV for $100 — it was a great deal at the time. These CRT TVs still function just fine but can be had for a song now! In the future, their prices are likely to plummet even further as more and more people buy LCD and plasma sets. The increased availability of high-definition programming is likely push prices of conventional TVs even lower.

CRT Computer Monitors. These cousins of CRT TVs shared their fate. Here is an ad for a Samsung 19-inch monitor for $20! This thing would set you back $400–500 just a few years ago. And it is still capable of quality equal or exceeding that of an LCD monitor of the same size. Better still, you can get 15- or 17-inch CRT monitors for free without too much effort.

Desktop Computers. Even the best computer monitor is of no use without a computer. Personal computers always had huge depreciation rates. It's even worse now for desktops as many folks discovered that good laptops can serve as perfectly adequate "desktop replacements." Personally, I like my ThinkPad so much that the very idea of going back to a desktop is painful. So, a price-conscious consumer can find terrific deals on used and new desktops alike. Here is a Pentium II IBM system for $45 or best offer. While this system is not a speed demon, it is adequate for Internet browsing, chat, and productivity tools such as Word or Excel. Unfortunately, it will not work that great for the latest games…

Older Game Consoles. OK, so your $45 computer cannot handle the latest hot game. Here are a few gadgets that can and they don't cost an arm and a leg. The advent of Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii means that prices of older consoles dropped like a stone. A used PS2 with games can be had for less than $100. So far PS3 has earned mixed reviews; more importantly, there are still not that many of them shipped to customers. This means that software companies will keep producing new games for PS2 for years to come. Mind you, PS2 is still relatively pricy. For real rock bottom prices for both hardware and software, check out Sega Geneses, Gamecube, Nintendo 64, PS1, original Xbox, and others.

VCRs. When tired of active and physically challenging entertainment such as video games, why not relax in front of you new old TV and watch a movie? A VCR may come in handy. It would have to be an older movie since most studios stopped releasing films on video cassettes two or three years ago. This is unfortunate but, on the other hand, both VCRs and video tapes are dirt cheap. Here is a VCR for $10; you could find one for $5 or probably even for free. Video cassettes can often be had for a dollar or less. And older movies are sometimes pretty good, even better (horrors!) then the new ones.

DVD Players. OK, so you categorically refuse to watch older movies on tapes. You are in luck! DVD players might have slain the VCR dragon, but are on the verge of obsolescence themselves. Regular DVD players do not support true high-definition video. For this, you need new technologies such as Blue-ray or HD DVD. As a result, while already cheap (starting at around $20–25 new), standard DVD players are likely to become extremely cheap very soon down the road. Similar fate awaits standard DVD recorders and standard DVDs.

Old Still Cameras. If you are not satisfied with just watching stuff created by others, you can unleash your own creative powers by using old cameras. A fine used 35mm film camera can be purchased for $10–20 dollars (here is a fine point-and-shoot for $6). A roll of film can be had for a dollar if you buy a set of four at a local Wal-Mart. Processing and printing can be done for $5–6. For a couple bucks more, you will also get a photo CD. If you are not a shutterbug, film photography represents an amazing bargain. If you want to plunge into digital photography, a used 2-megapixel camera could be found for $30–40 dollars. This is more than enough for printing 4 by 6 snapshots; you can even print 8 by 10 pictures. If you absolutely want a new digital camera, you could buy one with 4 and even 5 megapixels for less than $100.

Old Video Cameras. If still pictures are not your thing, there are several options. First, most still digital cameras (except SLRs) take videos (granted, the quality is usually not that good). Second, used non-digital camcorders can be found for much less than $100. With some tweaking, their output could be digitized. But, the analog format works just fine; all you lose is some editing and file-sharing capabilities. At any rate, if you insist on having a nice new digital camcorder, a non-HD one can had for less than $200 and a used one even for less.

Miscellaneous Music Gadgets. An audiophile on a budget can find various bargains including CD and cassette players, boomboxes, component stereo systems (receiver, cassette deck, tuner, equalizer, amplifier, etc.), etc. Many of these things produce beautiful sound and/or enough noise to make neighbors unhappy.

As we can see, there are lots of opportunities out there. Granted, you need Internet access to find most of them. But (a) broadband Internet access is getting cheaper and (b) if you do not have it, public libraries everywhere in the U.S. offer free Internet access (yes, libertarians do not like "free" things such as public libraries, but as long as they exist, why not use them?). When experts talk about "digital divide," they usually distinguish between physical access to Internet and skills required to benefit from it. Physical access is not such a problem these days. Young people, for the most part, have sufficient skills to use it. Older folks may have more difficult time with technology, but there are many resources which could help with training (libraries, community colleges, etc.).

Two final points: first, don't be afraid to haggle. The asking price is often not the final price even when people don't mention OBO. Some folks may be offended by "lowball" offers, but others will lower their prices. Second, to summarize this article, in order to spend less, do not be an early adopter of technology, but rather a late one.

(Disclaimer: having grown up in the former Soviet Union, the author has first-hand familiarity with living in reduced circumstances, without many gadgets, and occasionally going to bed hungry. As Tevye the milkman said in Fiddler on the Roof, poverty is not a vice. Besides, I really like old technologies!)

January 29, 2007