Some technologies are like a Tyrannosaurus running down the highway (without the awesome). They made sense once and now they're hideously out of place, carried only by momentum as they stumble toward their inevitable date with the sixteen-wheeler of Progress.
But, like the T-Rex, they seem intent on doing as much damage as they can until then.
About another million tons of these useless blocks will be shipped out to households and offices next year, where an increasing number will make a U Turn at the front porch and head to the landfill without ever being opened. William Rathke, an anthropologist who studies garbage, says you can "dig a trench through a landfill and you will see layers of phone books like geographical strata or layers of cake." Rathke, who despite digging through trash for a living has his Ph.D. from Harvard, claims phone books account for about 10-30% of the trash at your local dump.
In an era when you can fit many gigabytes onto a device small enough to be swallowed by a cat and even your local bait shop has a website, phone companies still want us to find phone numbers the same way we did 100 years ago: by dragging out a bulky, ten-pound list printed on dead trees.
Why are they still around?
Since you've probably never opened one, you may not realize that phone books are chock full of so many ads that they generated $13.9 billion last year. That sort of makes sense when you realize these ads are being force fed to every single household in America, like giant bricks of spam just appearing on your porch once a year. The only difference is you can click out of a pop up ad. Phone books weigh 10 lbs and have to be disposed of in special ways, to avoid becoming even more than 30% of your local landfill. Yes, it would appear that Satan works in advertising, and he's damn good at what he does.
But even though it reaches twice as many homes as the Super Bowl, does it get past the doorstep of those homes anymore? Are there really $13.9 billion worth of people using them? Well yes, if you believe the phone companies, and the people they've paid to conduct surveys. And in an industry with no sales figures (because nobody asked for the damn things in the first place) how else are you going to track who actually uses them?
Well there is one way. You could go hunting around in landfills to see if the phone books were thrown away all at once right when everyone got them, creating entire layers of phone book in the earth. You know, like a cake? But who's bat shit crazy enough to do something like that?
No sooner than we celebrate the death of the CD, its killer may be the next one in the grave. We're talking about the iPod (and its countless imitators) which is seeing falling sales for the first time in its short life.
But don't feel sorry for Apple, the reason for the MP3 player slide is that cell phones (including their own iPhone) make perfectly good MP3 players. Selling someone an iPod now is like selling a feces gun to a monkey; he doesn't need it.
Why are they still around?
MP3 players hang around for the same reason digital cameras and GPS navigators hang around; all those things are available on phones, but the standalone devices still do it a little better.
For instance, there are iPods that can hold up to 40,000 songs now (which we believe is more songs than actually exist) and the iPhone "only" has room for about 3,500. But since the average user hasn't stolen anywhere near that many songs anyway, fewer and fewer are seeing the point of carrying around a separate device.
It's true the iPod still has some fashion appeal, and Apple continues to crank out versions with new features (including the iPod Touch, which seems to have been designed as an iPhone that you can't call people with). But it's a hopeless battle, since some of us just don't have the extra pocket. That won't get any better with time, since experts believe spandex jumpsuits are the future.
As processors and memory get exponentially smaller and smaller, the cell phone will swallow up every device in the home. By 2020 you won't even need a separate computer or laptop. By 2040 cell phones will be in charge of the planet, and our job will just be to tote them around from place to place so they can have meetings with each other.
After ten years we're finally seeing dropping DVD sales. Considering movies can already be downloaded onto set-top boxes on a pay-per-view basis, and can be downloaded over the internet on a pay-nothing-per-view basis, it's a wonder it took this long. Any economists reading may recognize that combination of risk factors and symptoms the same way doctors recognize coughing, shortness of breath and a constellation of funny-shapes on a chest X-ray.
Companies like Sony would like to think the dip is due to people getting all excited about Bluray, but while Bluray sales have inched along, movie downloads have doubled.
Meanwhile Netflix has made a deal with Microsoft so that anyone who owns an XBox 360 can get a subscription to download Netflix movies, physical media be damned.
Why are they still around?
Box sets of TV shows have inexplicably injected huge profits into DVD over the last few years. Even though the shows are free to watch in rerun form and, if you're not happy with that, rips are available four nanoseconds before a show finishes airing. But loyal fans hold out for the official box set. If you're new to this human thing called "capitalism", corporations interpret "loyalty" the way a prisoner might interpret "dropping the soap".
For example, The Sopranos box set planned for later this year will cost four hundred dollars. This officially makes the studio better at criminal extortion than the characters on the DVDs. Unless they include a special "real ending" as an extra, we're guessing it won't be worth it.
The big question at this point is if Bluray ever takes off, since it's offering something that can't be downloaded (or not easily anyway--an HD movie takes an entire day to download on most connections). So until our internet connections improve, sellers of movies on disc will have to depend on the market segment willing to pay to see every speck of dust on Batman's suit.