The Tragedy of Planned Obsolescence

Technology today is designed to fail. Products are made so that you will buy a new one after a pre-determined time. This is called planned obsolescence and is a widely accepted commercial concept within industrial companies.

The Phoebus Kartel  was a cartel of, among others, Osram, Philips and General Electricfrom December 23, 1924 until 1939 that controlled the manufacture and sale of light bulbs. It decided that it would limit the lifetime of a lightbulb to 1000 hours. Before this arbitrary and profit-driven decision, light bulbs could last for a very long time, a solid proof for that is the Livermore’s Centennial Lightbulb which shines since 1890. The 1000 hours rule was the beginning of an imposed large-scale planned obsolescence.

Above: The Livermore’s Centennial Lightbulb’s webcam

After the great depression, Bernard London thought that imposing planned obsolescence by law would bring prosperity to Americans.

The american designer Brook Stevens gave many conferences on the advantage of planned obsolescence. His products would always look newer, better than the existing one. By his definition, planned obsolescence was “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”

Above: The toastalator by Brook Stevens

Without planned obsolescence, shopping malls would probably not exits and economic growth would not be as crucial as it it today to the economy.  In essence, economic growth does not attempt to make human life better, it just tries to grow for the sake of it. This growth is based on debt and on consuming products that are not necessary. As the economist and system theorist Kenneth Boulding once said: “Someone who believes that an economy that constantly grows on a planet that is finite is either mad or an economist, the problem is that we are all economists now.”

The Waste Makers, published in 1960 by Vance Packard is the first book on the topic.

Apple, largest public company in the U.S., gave a clear notice to its reseller when the IPOD battery would fail: “buy a new ipod“.  Apple was sued for that by consumers, the case was called Wesley vs. Apple. Apple lost the case and was forced to extend the warranty on the battery. Apple has no environmental policy for its products and tries to sell as many products as possible, not products that will last.

Image courtesy of Stay Free Magazine.

Epson adds microchips in some of their printers that counts the amount  of prints and breaks the printer after reaching a pre-determined printer. In fact, some freewares help you to reset the count so that you can use your printers more.

Electronic products that could have lasted much longer end up in illegal dump site in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria (have a look at the Agbogbloshie dump site on this BBC documentary).

Above: kid looking for copper on the Agbogbloshie illegal E-Waste dump site, Ghana

The idea of creating “Open-Source” buildings from simple materials that can be made and improved by anyone and based on home-grown or widely accessible products is DS10’s answer to the tragedy of planned obsolescence. Similarly to open source software that can always be updated and maintained by the end user, the makers will not be at the sole mercy of a proprietary vendor. We will also look into temples, timeless monuments for spirituality and best counter example for modernist buildings, a theory which emerged around the same time as the Phoebus Kartel.

Sources:

-This post is based on the documentary “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” by Cosima Dannoritzen.

-http://www.apfelkraut.org/2011/03/the-untold-story-of-planned-obsolescence/

-http://quiet-environmentalist.com/is-the-earth-doomed-due-to-planned-obsolescence/

-http://www.amazon.com/Made-Break-Technology-Obsolescence-America/dp/0674022033

-http://www.amazon.co.uk/Planned-Obsolescence-Publishing-Technology-Academy/dp/0814727883

Re-connecting Urbanites with their Food / Nature

The Fin’s Labyrinth is a project by Stewart HICKS and Allison NEWMEYER from Design with Company which just won Suckerpunchdaily‘s competition to imagine a Center for Urban Farming.

This theoretical project titled “Fin’s Labyrinth” encourages inhabitants of a city to “play with their food”. According to the authors, it acts “both as working fish farm and a new form of public (civic) amenity. It uses the infrastructure for raising fish as a backdrop to a wide range of activities designed to entertain you while getting you acquainted with your next meal. It reintroduces the production of food into the daily lives of city dwellers, making a more concrete connection between what we put in our mouths and the environment required to generate it.”

A few months ago, Mark Zuckerberg, the famous co-founder of Facebook declared that he will “only eat meat that he killed.”  He justified this personal challenge by saying “I think many people forget that a living being has to die for you to eat meat […] so my goal revolves around not letting myself forget that and being thankful for what I have.” Under the tutelage of a chef, Zuckerberg visits local farms and cut the throat of animals with a knife, which is “the most kind way to do it”.

The Fin’s labyrinth and Zuckerberg’s latest “challenge” reveals a growing discomfort for what cannot be seen in the city while being inherent to its functioning: An intense violence was necessary to kill the animal yet one can buy its pieces packaged from the supermarket just like cereals. This imbalance could be solved in myriads of Architectural proposals. One could imagine a supermarket where you can hunt for food, with forests entering the white cold aisles. Who knows, maybe this might help reducing crime by helping people release their inner violence hence killing two bird with one stone. [:)] 

Toby and I would like to encourage these “closed-loop” or “self-reliant” systems where very little is needed from the outside to make the program work…

Below are several projects from Design with Company on this topic:

The Fin’s Labyrinth

Farmland World