Requiem for a Gizmo

brooks-stevens

“instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”

American industrial designer Brooks Stevens (above) is credited with popularizing the term ‘planned obsolesence’ and recognized for bringing modern design to the ordinary objects of American life. His streamlined transformations of outboard motors, motorcycles, and clothes irons in the 1940s are significant for their formal beauty and marketing savvy. Is planned obsolesence the greedy corporate sin we make it out to be—a capitalist cancer that has metastasized into a full-blown cultural catastrophe, choking waste dumps and polluting air and water? Or is it a reality of post-industrial design life and a necessary approach to product design and architecture in an uncertain time?

In Made to Break, Technology and Obsolesence in America, (Harvard, 2006), Giles Slade describes three types of obsolesence: technological, where a product retires or dies due to technological innovation; psychological, attributed to a product’s change in design and style as a way manipulate consumers into repetitive buying; and planned obsolesence, in which companies intentionally choose materials and manufacturing processes that keep costs down but limit the product’s life. We’ve probably experienced all of these conditions in our relationships with things and should prepare ourselves for the reality that when the latest new gizmo is introduced it will only be a matter of time before its shine begins to fade. A few years back the Onion published a piece about GM’s new disposable car. It’s sold with a full tank of gas and you drive it until it’s empty, then leave on the side of the road and buy a new one. It’s hard to imagine that today’s iPhone will soon be found in second-hand shops and recycling bins. When something new and young and sexy comes along who will be able to resist?

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2 responses to “Requiem for a Gizmo

  1. In some spheres the term “planned obsolescence” is itself obsolescent. Technology is the most obvious example: You don’t have to scheme to limit the life of an electronic device when it will automatically be outmoded in two years. Would anyone like an analog TV in great condition? How about an excellent all-in-one inkjet that doesn’t work with Windows Vista? A closet full of telephones?

    With some traditional products, too, the trends run counter to planned obsolescence. Cars, for instance, last twice as long as they did when I began driving in the dark ages of the 1960s, and maybe that’s one reason automakers are in trouble. Their products are too good. Now they’re hoping technology will advance fast enough to induce us to trade in our supposed clunkers (like my 1995 Volkswagen, which still runs fine) and save the industry.

    How about everybody’s favorite evil overlord, Big Pharma? Most people, myself included, would gladly attribute any variety of devilish thinking to the drug companies. But in that sector the struggle is reversed: trying to stretch a drug’s life span and keep it popular till its patent runs out.

    Here are two further thoughts that I’d be interested to see developed on this blog:
    (1) Planned obsolescence, by its very nature, is a strategy for future thinkers. It developed in a time when corporate execs could reasonably contemplate the situation ten years down the road. Does that happen now? Does anyone think beyond tomorrow’s bottom line?
    (2) A cause-and-effect question: Do we dispose of consumer goods so fast because they won’t last even if we pamper them? Or do the manufacturers give us cheap disposable goods because that’s what we want?

  2. Good point, Doug. I wonder if we should now call it “assumed obsolescence?”

    I do remember reading an argument years ago that said planned obsolescence makes certain kinds of progress possible — and not of the obvious sort (“new, improved”). The example I remember was the introduction of catalytic converters in the 70s, the reason why you can now see mountains in L.A. I never knew existed when I was growing up. The success of California’s pollution controls depended on older vehicles falling apart or failing so that they would gradually replaced by less polluting models. — Ann

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