planned obsolescence

I almost bought a new com­puter today, but then I talked myself out of it. “Do I really want to do this?” I won­dered. In just a year or two it will be obso­lete, just like my cur­rent (ten-year-old) computer.

This led to a depress­ing spi­ral of thought. Com­put­ers are per­fect exam­ples of planned obso­les­cence. Today’s aver­age com­puter user uses his machine to per­form the same tasks that he needed a com­puter for ten years ago. But would today’s soft­ware run on a com­puter from ten years ago? I chal­lenge you to try that with Win­dows Vista.

I don’t think com­put­ers have improved sub­stan­tially in ten years. Sure, they’re faster, and arguably bet­ter look­ing. But those changes are just icing on a very expen­sive cake. I just want to check my e-mail. Not that I was plan­ning to reply in a timely fashion.

Mobile phones are designed to be thrown away after 2 or 3 years. Some­thing like 150 mil­lion go to land­fills every year. They don’t decom­pose! Of course my Model 2500 home phone still works after 35 years, and it still has bet­ter sound qual­ity than any cell­phone. I admit that it won’t fit in my pocket and it can’t remote-control my blender, but those are draw­backs that I can live with.

My Mach 3 razor blades are ter­ri­ble. They give a great shave, but I’m already plan­ning to throw them away from the moment I open the box. In fact, the patented lubri­cat­ing strip changes color to remind me that its time has come. That both­ers me. One of these days I’ll learn to shave with a straight blade.

Mardi Gras beads are meant to be thrown away almost imme­di­ately after pur­chas­ing. A friend of mine likes to pon­der life from the per­spec­tive of the Chi­nese girls who work 10 hour days in Mardi Gras bead neck­lace fac­to­ries. What do they think we’re doing here in Amer­ica with mil­lions of ugly necklaces?

I would men­tion cars in the same way, but they’re a spe­cial case. Lewis Mum­ford described America’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem as “monotechnic”—fraught with the same kind of prob­lems that mono­cul­ture has brought to Amer­i­can crops. Heavy reliance on auto­mo­biles has led them to inter­fere with other modes of trans­porta­tion. (Let’s not even con­sider those spe­cial cases of pure stu­pid­ity in trans­porta­tion history.)

Wikipedia says this about Lewis Mumford:

In The Myth of the Machine: tech­nics and human devel­op­ment (1967), Mum­ford crit­i­cizes the mod­ern trend of tech­nol­ogy, which empha­sizes con­stant, unre­stricted expan­sion, pro­duc­tion, and replace­ment. He explains that these goals work against tech­ni­cal per­fec­tion, dura­bil­ity, social effi­ciency, and over­all human sat­is­fac­tion. Mod­ern technology—which he calls ‘megatechnics’—evades pro­duc­ing last­ing, qual­ity prod­ucts by using devices such as con­sumer credit, install­ment buy­ing, non-functioning and defec­tive designs, built-in fragility, and fre­quent super­fi­cial “fash­ion” changes.

There’s a book I need to add to my read­ing list! I’m doing it in the name of over­all human satisfaction.

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August 11, 2007 August 11, 2007 archives by Scott [permanent link]