Made to Break
Technology and Obsolescence in America
By Giles Slade
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS; 330 PAGES; $27.95
As Steven Wright famously said, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?" So you get rid of the old stuff, but what makes it old? The idea of products built not to last irks us, but for a variety of reasons we routinely discard devices that work just fine. Obsolescence by any other name has helped nourish a sweet economy, but a hidden cost is coming due fast, in the poisonous waste quickly overwhelming the world's capacity to deal with it.
Giles Slade, who describes himself as an "unaffiliated scholar," produces these numbers in "Made to Break": At least 90 percent of the 315 million still-functional personal computers discarded in North America in 2004 were trashed (it was 63 million just a year before), and more than 100 million cell phones -- 200,000 tons worth -- were thrown away in 2005. Cell phones are especially dangerous, because their toxic components are too small to disassemble and recycle. They are also being trashed with amazing speed, with the shortest life span of any electronic product.
Things are likely to get much worse in the near future, thanks to better enforcement of the international ban on exporting hazardous waste expected in coming years ($100 bills taped to the inside of inspected cartons currently help grease this activity, Slade notes), and especially due to the FCC-mandated switch to high definition TV in 2007, which may result in millions of suddenly junked televisions. "This one-time disposal of 'brown goods' will, alone, more than double the hazardous waste problem in North America."
The overall effect is profound. "As the waste piles up in the United States, above and below ground" Slade writes, "contamination of America's fresh water supply from e-waste may soon become the greatest biohazard facing the entire continent." Even if there were places to take the stuff offshore, there won't be enough ships to carry it.
"We are standing on the precipice of an insurmountable e-waste storage problem that no landfill program so far imagined will be able to solve." This assessment frames Slade's examination of the various kinds of obsolescence that contribute to the problem. A new machine that does something different (the PC), or adds new capability (cell phone versus land line) or adds new features (cell phones with Internet, etc.) is an obvious incentive for a consumer to replace the old machine. But besides the apparent progress of the new and improved, there are other factors that encourage consumers to buy and rapidly throw away products.
Changes in style (the annual model change adopted by the auto industry being the best-known example) and appeals to status encouraged by massive advertising are major forms of "psychological obsolescence," specifically designed to create demand for new versions of old and still usable products. But another way of selling new machines at a faster rate is to make sure the old ones break down sooner. This practice of "death-dating" is what most people think of when they hear the term "planned obsolescence."
The idea entered the American consciousness in the late 1950s and quickly became part of the critique of consumption (along with the excesses of advertising) put forward by author Vance Packard ("The Hidden Persuaders" and "The Waste Makers" were best-sellers), the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and the 1962 Port Huron Statement: the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Slade discovered a much earlier instance in a 1932 pamphlet by real estate broker Bernard London, who was arguing in favor of it. The Depression may seem a weird time to propose that things break down as soon as possible, but London was looking at it from the producer's standpoint. If people could be induced to replace things sooner, he reasoned, sales and jobs would increase, and the economy would improve. London seemed to want to go so far as to make planned obsolescence a legal requirement.
London wasn't entirely alone -- there were advocates of all kinds of obsolescence to stimulate the 1930s economy. Slade notes several industries where manufacturers knew how to death-date their technologies, usually with less durable materials, and they did so, with the additional excuse of cutting costs and the price.
But readers ought not to expect a single focus on the theory and practice of death-dating, despite this book's title. Though he illustrates various forms of obsolescence, much of Slade's book is an amiable and informative history of 20th century technologies, often through the life stories of the people involved in creating, producing and disseminating them.
There are chapters relating the development of nylon to American rage over Japanese imperialism in the 1930s, the machinations of RCA kingpin David Sarnoff in suppressing FM radio and the development of microchips and personal computers. Slade takes planned obsolescence one step beyond with a chapter on how the United States fed Soviet spies faulty technological designs in the '70s and '80s, so that their oil facilities and military systems broke down suddenly and sometimes spectacularly. The writing is generally engaging, but reader interest may vary according to the specific topic.
The book ends where it began, with concise warnings about the perils of e-waste, and a call for "technological literacy." Just because cyberspace is invisible, and few people know or care how cell phones work, doesn't mean these new devices are as ethereal as magic. They have costs. We're paying in fuel and air pollution to power them (George Gilder projects that Internet computing will soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001), and to make them (author Hunter Lovins estimates the manufacture of a laptop computer creates 4,000 times its weight in waste.) Now toxic e-waste joins the mountain range of rubble from our throw-away economy. In the 21st century, garbage is becoming our most important product.
William Kowinski is the author of "The Malling of America."