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Obsolescence now redundant

From today’s Sunday Times, in an article on the police crackdown on street racing:

Acting Insp Colin Asplin said the introduction of digital police radio communication — expected around Christmas — would mean they could sneak up on young hoons.

“It’ll make their scanners pretty well redundant,” he said. “It's going to have a profound effect on the way that we do our business. We’ll have a greater element of surprise.”

On reading this passage, I furrowed my brow at Asplin’s use of the word ‘redundant’ to mean ‘obsolete.’ I’d never seen it before, and was a little confused as to how it had arrived there. Sure, “to be made redundant” has meant something close to obsolete in British and Australian English for years (as part of an assumedly-Industrial-Revolution-era idiom meaning to be fired from your job) but I wasn’t so sure this was the right spot to be using it.

In the “you’re fired” case the redundancy is (fairly) clear: some new technology is able to perform your job function, thus your personal performance of that function is redundant and you’re fired. If the new technology can perform that function better, faster, or cheaper than you can, then you aren’t just being made redundant: you’re also being made obsolete. Or maybe you’re being made redundant because the new technology has made you obsolete. Still with me?

Now, in the case of the police and their radios the old radios are being made redundant (and obsolete) by the digital ones, that much is certain. Digital radios do the same job, and better, so the analog radios are being taken out of service. But hoons aren’t doing anything with their scanners. They aren’t installing a second scanner that duplicates the function of the first, their scanners are just ceasing to be useful. So, strictly speaking, they aren’t being made redundant. They’re just being made obsolete.

But with all of the above in mind, the Acting Inspector’s misapplication is quite understandable: if you take the idiomatic use of ‘redundant’ at face value (and take its association with obsolescence too seriously) you might assume it can be applied anywhere a thing is taken out of service. If redundant equals unemployed, then the scanners are redundant! Unfortunately this logic falls apart for anyone with an understanding of why redundant equals unemployed.

It’s an interesting development either way. I wonder if this use of ‘redundant’ will catch on (or if it has already caught on, and I’m just suffering from a recency illusion); it would be most amusing to see the prescriptivists go crazy trying to correct everyone, only to realize (years from now, on their deathbeds) that they had failed, and that there were now entire generations of people speaking ‘the wrong way’.