Re-thinking our ‘built to fail’ society

Brompton-bicycle-2-385x250In-built obsolescence may seem a forgivable quirk of the modern technology many of us love, but it has a force of its own, placing us on a wheel of consumer slavery. But there is another way

When I first heard of planned obsolescence – products being purposefully built to fail in order to fuel our buying more and more – I felt shock and disbelief. The concept was the very antithesis of the values I’d been brought up on by my dad, a skilled woodworker who had made a guitar and a clavichord from scratch, who had spent 18 months when I was younger, lovingly poring over the joints and cornices of an oak dresser. Pieces infused with expertise and care, built above all, to last.

But the story gradually came together for me. Members of planned obsolescence club range from the light bulb cartel of the 1920s who collectively decided to build their bulbs to fail more quickly, to the endless iterations of iPads, televisions and computers created and marketed today, creating a culture in which something more than 12 months old is worthy of being scoffed at and out-of-date. Or so we’re told. One of the pre-cartel light bulbs still shines in a fire station in Livermore, California, going strong after 112 years, a symbol of long-forgotten constancy completely at odds with our culture of trend and aspiration.

As James Wallman explored in his book Stuffocation, keeping people spending more and solving the problem of underconsumption became a key business focus, firstly in the US and then spreading quickly worldwide.

“A real estate agent in New York called Bernard London, in a pamphlet called Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” he writes, “suggested that the government stimulate demand by defining the time any product was allowed to be used. It would work like the use-by date that comes with food.”

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