Service and Planned Obsolescence

For the last months, many Mozillians have been thinking out loud about radical participation. I’m involved in one experiment getting at this, the Mozilla Clubs. As this initiative gets its legs, there’s a question that keeps snagging in my mind.

One of the most compelling things about Mozilla’s learning efforts is the commitment to individual empowerment. Digital skills, knowledge about the web, peer learning and support — all of theses tools are in service to an individual gaining more agency.

Collectively, these individual transformations become about changing society for the better.

I love the spirit of being in service to something. Perhaps it stems from my family’s ties to the military and that culture’s omnipresent sense of duty. Although, honestly that version of service never appealed much to me, even while I acknowledge its role in society on occasion and appreciate the commitment of service members.

Instead, maybe being in service to something or someone is a humbling counterbalance to the zeitgeist.

Today it’s easy, and often encouraged, to puff up your work or personhood. Our ego avatars start to be an end in themselves. “Build your own brand. Get more followers. Make a name for yourself. ” You know that spiel.

If you are in service to something or someone, then all of your actions are towards another, towards something other than yourself. Your ego is channeled to attend to the needs of someone else. Their success becomes your success. You dissolve as they grow.

This can happen at a small scale, like in a classroom. A good teacher sets a framework, guides their learners to discover their own agency, and moves to the background. A good teacher is in service to their learners’ success, their self-actualization. A good teacher makes themselves obsolete.

That’s a weird and paradoxical thing to think about.

What can you do to erase yourself? How can you convene learners, prepare to be their guide and support, so that when they are successful, you aren’t needed anymore?

Obsolescence can be planned. While there are plenty of bad examples of what this looks like, planned obsolescence doesn’t have to be frightening or frustrating.

In a positive way, planned obsolescence can be a teacher preparing their students for graduation. Think of a tricycle, which is designed to help us gain experience and confidence in riding a bike, so that one day we don’t need it anymore.

Social norms and technical products shape our behavior (see Lessig’s Pathetic Dot Theory). And as makers of software and learning experiences, we can design in a way that obsolescence is planned for the benefit of users and learners.

At a macro level, I think this is what Mozilla should do. I imagine a future where Mozilla has made itself obsolete. Our contribution to individual empowerment on the web has led to such a change in society, all these individual successes seen collectively, that Mozilla isn’t needed anymore.

A mission-driven organization shouldn’t exist for its own sake. It should exist for its mission. When its mission is accomplished, the organization is no longer needed.

So let’s plan and experiment and teach not so that Mozilla is exists for hundreds of years. But that our learners and the future citizens of the web we helped empower become our legacy. And they live on without us.

That seems radical to me.

Image: “Old-Time Toys, Dolls and Novelties tricycle” in the public domain, made available by Dover Publications.

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