Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America

Made to Break by Giles Slade
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May 20, 08

bookshelves: non-fiction, environmentalism, favourite, history, 2006
Read in January, 2006

Anyone interested in education, the environment, government policy, corporations, innovation and invention, and fads, will get a lot out of this book.

Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America details the beginnings of our consumerist society, our over-consumption, our greed, our near-sightedness. Although written specifically about America - with good reason - the same effects can be seen in any other western country, and most others as well.

In his introduction, Slade says "Deliberate obsolescence in all its forms - technological, psychological, or planned - is a uniquely American invention." Obsolesence has been adopted not only by manufacturers but also consumers: who wants to keep last year's mobile phone model when this year's is also an MP3 player? Who wants to keep driving a 2005 Lexus when the 2006 model promises freedom from your crappy job? This is psychological obsolescence, this way of thinking that anything old is no longer usable, desirable or fashionable.

It did not begin by accident. Worried about over-production, anxious to keep people buying right through the depression, businessmen (and yes, they were all men) decided the only way out would be to sell more stuff, not make less of it. And the way to make people buy more is to render their current possessions obsolete, whether by design flaws, fashion, or agressive marketing. Disposability is traced back to paper: paper shirt fronts and cuffs for men, then sanitary napkins for women, beginning the "throwaway ethic" now so acceptable. "Thrift" became a bad word, and anti-fun.

Chapter 2 details the war between Ford and General Motors and "the practice of deliberately encouraging product obsolescence." Fleshed out with human stories of the men (yes, they were all men) involved, this chapter is truly fascinating and the only thing I wish had been included, as elsewhere in the book, were some pictures of the cars. Not being of a generation that can still remember the models in question, a little visualisation is helpful. But it's a small, personal quibble, and doesn't detract from the content. It is actually entertaining to read what Ford and Sloane of GM did: unable to push sales up (against the Tin Lizzy, noisy, uncomfortable but very reliable and made to last), GM began changing their design, nothing else - colour, style, upholstery, all things that made the Tin Lizzy look old and sad, and even older GM models now looked pitiful. While, in a later chapter on the 50s and 60s, a backlash against the absurd tailfins resulted in huge popularity of the foreign-made Volkswagen, whose ads emphasised its stability and lack of "superficial model changes."

The concept of "death dating" is studied - the idea of, say, a toaster of having a life span of only 3 years, after which it dies (deliberately), and the owner must buy a new model. Another chapter discusses the advent of radio and television, and the struggle for FM to exist at all, while chapter 8 gives some insight into the Cold War and the deliberate sabotage by American and Canadian companies of their products, knowing that the Soviets were going to steal them, since they couldn't afford to do all the research and invent anything themselves. This chapter is mostly a personal story about a Soviet double agent, and I admit I did get a bit lost amongst all the names, and couldn't help but wonder at the relevance of it all.

Chips play a big part in the story of planned obsolescence, and the final chapter on computers and mobile phones, while reiterating the main points of the introduction, includes some truly scary facts. Like:
1. "Cell phones built to last five years are now retired after only eighteen months of use."
2. There is not yet a ban in the United States that prohibits the export of e-waste to other, often less-developed countries like Bangladesh, where "unregulated facilities burn excess plastic waste around the clock, pumping PBDE and dioxin-laden fumes into the air. Despite respiratory disorders and skin diseases among the local residents, and despite transoceanic airborne contamination, these facilities are still considered valuable local businesses."
3. Nearly every mobile and laptop, pager and organiser, contains tantalum capacitors. Tantalum comes from refining colombo-tantalum ore, or coltan, found mostly in West Africa. Very few people are aware that the mining of coltan "produces economic devastation".

Slade makes some interesting points, notably about the lack of "technological literacy" existing today. "Only a public that tries to understand the consequences of coltan mining can begin to make an informed choice about the global trade-offs associated with 'trading up' to a new and better cell phone."

There is more to this than the evils of advertising, Slade argues. There is the "mystery" of the consumer themself. "Neophilias" are people who love new things, and can be divided into three groups - "pristinians", those who must sustain a pristine self-image by always having the newest thing; "trailblazing" or "technophiles", the ones who usually discover the latest "thing" and, though nerdy, spread the word and it catches on (remember when mobile phones were HUGE and really daggy? You wouldn't be caught dead with one); and "fashion fanatics", the majority or neophiles who can't stand wearing last seasons clothes or being out of the loop. With pressure amongst groups of friends, or at school, the need to own that latest gadget becomes the newer form of "keeping up with the Joneses."

While America is one of the worst offenders of disposability, waste and over-consumption, no one else is innocent either. But I respect my mum who would rather shell out a hundred dollars for a decent pair of leather shoes for her kids than twenty bucks for a pair of crappy vinyl sneakers that would have to be replaced three times a year. We had the same telly for about fifteen years, right up to the day it was no longer repairable - they don't tend to last that long anymore. If parents can resist their nagging kids, perhaps even keep them from watching commercial television, maybe a cycle can be broken? It is, after all, psychological, not a natural order of things.

It doesn't have to be this way: Slade reveals one example, "a hand-blown carbon-filament light bulb, made by Shelby Electric Company, that still illuminates the municipal fire hall in Livermore, California: it was originally switched on in 1901." So next time the bulb in the lounge room blows, again, and you get up on a chair to replace it, again, think of this, that the only reason it died is because it was designed that way, to keep you buying more.
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