Planned obsolescence is the (arguably somewhat obnoxious) strategy pursued by companies where they intentionally put an expiration date on a product that shouldn’t necessarily need one, making it necessary for you to pay all over again for an updated model. Probably the best modern examples are Microsoft Windows and Apple’s iPhone series. Can you imagine the uproar if people had to replace their cars as often as an iProduct becomes nigh (or completely) unusable?
But let’s not discuss that. I want to talk about unplanned obsolescence, particularly where writers of science fiction are concerned. That’s basically where the flights of speculative technological fancy you’re structuring your tale around become either debunked or science fact (though perhaps not quite the way you presented it). This was the year Back to the Future of all things got re-examined to see how its vision of October 21, 2015 compared to our own. One word of consideration there beyond all the hoverboards and such: faxes. In the mid-1980s we were obsessed with faxing as the way of the future, and while it does still happen, it’s hardly our main means of exchanging information. In 2020 Blade Runner will no doubt be held up to the same examination, and it is unlikely we will have developed artificial humans capable of witnessing C-beams glitter near the Tannhauser Gate. We have, however, developed pocket-sized computers that can talk to anyone in the world with the touch of a few buttons.
21st Century authors can get into a bit of an existential crisis over the accelerated pace of development we’re in now. As a personal example, when we started Zombie Ranch in 2009, the idea of remote controlled drones that could hover around feeding live camera footage to an operator still seemed somewhat far-fetched. Six years later and you can buy them on Amazon, and the only bit that’s still in the realm of fancy seems to be our far more silent propulsion system that doesn’t sound like you’re being buzzed by a gigantic mosquito.
But here’s the thing. Sure, science fiction should at least in part be concerned about technology, or it wouldn’t be science fiction. On the other hand, it’s also fiction, and fiction concerns itself with stories, with characters and conflicts. With people (or AI or aliens who still illustrate or contrast some facet of human nature). Now, fears of the onrushing Singularity aside (talk about unplanned obsolescence!), it’s much less likely that the emotions, desires, and foibles of people will become obsolete, at least within the timeframe where fiction as we know it exists. Oedipus Rex retains its power to resonate with our own experiences nearly 2500 years after it was first written, even though its trappings of Greek culture and religion are hardly relevant to our lives.
So I feel Isaac Asimov had the right idea. His Robot series of stories all revolved around a conception of how artificial intelligence might develop in a particular way, but the stories themselves were always ultimately about how that affected humanity (including the nascent humanity of the robots). One day soon we may answer the question of Artificial Intelligence in a way different than Asimov envisioned, but even if the stories become inaccurate or irrelevant in their technical details, they will retain their dramatic power. Let the science feed the fiction without overwhelming it, and you may never need to worry about obsolescence at all.