Monday, June 4, 2012

VIDEO: Planned Obsolescence ("The Lightbulb Conspiracy")

This video is well worth an hour of your time: Yes, there are many documentaries out there about over-consumption, consumerism, etc, but this one stands out from the rest, in that it makes this excellent observation on the world economy: Our economy is based on over-consumption and consumerism, even planned obsolescence of products, and cannot function if the people were to overcome these "bad habits".

The documentary uses the life expectancy of a light bulb or a printer to show how companies are trying to lower the life expectancy of their products. After all, if products were designed to endure for ever, there would be no need for us to work long hours - the global economy would collapse and unemployment would soar, unless of course we were to work for only a few hours a day. But that would be terrible for our rulers, who would probably be made obsolete.

Please remember this MUST-READ article from Orion Magazine:
[...] Just ten years later things looked very different. Cars dominated the streets and most urban homes had electric lights, electric flat irons, and vacuum cleaners. In upper-middle-class houses, washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, curling irons, percolators, heating pads, and popcorn poppers were becoming commonplace. And although the first commercial radio station didn’t begin broadcasting until 1920, the American public, with an adult population of about 122 million people, bought 4,438,000 radios in the year 1929 alone.

But despite the apparent tidal wave of new consumer goods and what appeared to be a healthy appetite for their consumption among the well-to-do, industrialists were worried. They feared that the frugal habits maintained by most American families would be difficult to break. Perhaps even more threatening was the fact that the industrial capacity for turning out goods seemed to be increasing at a pace greater than people’s sense that they needed them.
It was this latter concern that led Charles Kettering, director of General Motors Research, to write a 1929 magazine article called “Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.” He wasn’t suggesting that manufacturers produce shoddy products. Along with many of his corporate cohorts, he was defining a strategic shift for American industry—from fulfilling basic human needs to creating new ones.

In a 1927 interview with the magazine Nation’s Business, Secretary of Labor James J. Davis provided some numbers to illustrate a problem that the New York Times called “need saturation.” Davis noted that “the textile mills of this country can produce all the cloth needed in six months’ operation each year” and that 14 percent of the American shoe factories could produce a year’s supply of footwear. The magazine went on to suggest, “It may be that the world’s needs ultimately will be produced by three days’ work a week.”
Businessmen were not happy about this prospect -> Read the rest of the story here:

Anyway, back to the documentary, here is a short description of it (via imdb):
Once upon a time..... products were made to last. Then, at the beginning of the 1920s, a group of businessmen were struck by the following insight: 'A product that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business' (1928). Thus Planned Obsolescence was born. Shortly after, the first worldwide cartel was set up expressly to reduce the life span of the incandescent light bulb, a symbol for innovation and bright new ideas, and the first official victim of Planned Obsolescence. During the 1950s, with the birth of the consumer society, the concept took on a whole new meaning, as explained by flamboyant designer Brooks Stevens: 'Planned Obsolescence, the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary...'. The growth society flourished, everybody had everything, the waste was piling up (preferably far away in illegal dumps in the Third World) - until consumers started rebelling..
And here's a wikipedia article on  Planned Obsolescence:
Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence in industrial design is a policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete, that is, unfashionable or no longer functional after a certain period of time. Planned obsolescence has potential benefits for a producer because to obtain continuing use of the product the consumer is under pressure to purchase again, whether from the same manufacturer (a replacement part or a newer model), or from a competitor which might also rely on planned obsolescence. 
In some cases, deliberate deprecation of earlier versions of a technology is used to reduce ongoing support costs, especially in the software industry. Though this could be considered planned obsolescence, it differs from the classic form in that the consumer is typically made aware of the limited support lifetime of the product as part of their licensing agreement.

For an industry, planned obsolescence stimulates demand by encouraging purchasers to buy sooner if they still want a functioning product. Built-in obsolescence is used in many different products. There is, however, the potential backlash of consumers who learn that the manufacturer invested money to make the product obsolete faster; such consumers might turn to a producer (if any exists) that offers a more durable alternative.

Estimates of planned obsolescence can influence a company's decisions about product engineering. Therefore the company can use the least expensive components that satisfy product lifetime projections. Such decisions are part of a broader discipline known as value engineering. 
Origins of planned obsolescence go back at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London's pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. Stevens was due to give a talk at an advertising conference in Minneapolis in 1954. Without giving it much thought, he used the term as the title of his talk.
From that point on, "planned obsolescence" became Stevens' catchphrase. 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.
The term was quickly taken up by others, but Stevens' definition was challenged. By the late 1950s, planned obsolescence had become a commonly-used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. In fact, the concept was so widely recognized that in 1959 Volkswagen mocked it in a now-legendary advertising campaign. While acknowledging the widespread use of planned obsolescence among automobile manufacturers, Volkswagen pitched itself as an alternative. "We do not believe in planned obsolescence," the ads suggested. "We don't change a car for the sake of change."
In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, promoted as an exposé of "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals."
Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function. "Obsolescence of desirability", also called "psychological obsolescence", referred to marketers' attempts to wear out a product in the owner's mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote: "Design... is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is 'styling!'"
Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly.
Before introducing a planned obsolescence, the producer has to know that the consumer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them. In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer–who knows how long the product was designed to last–and the consumer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. When Japanese vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products.
Types of obsolescence
Technical or functional obsolescence

The design of most consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Thus, it must be decided early in the design of a complex product how long it is designed to last so that each component can be made to those specifications.

Planned obsolescence is made more likely by making the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or by refusing to provide service or parts any longer. 
Systemic obsolescence

Planned systemic obsolescence is the deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which it is used in such a way as to make its continued use difficult. New software is frequently introduced that is not compatible with older software.
Style obsolescence

Marketing may be driven primarily by aesthetic design. Product categories in this case display a fashion cycle. By continually introducing new designs, and retargeting or discontinuing others, a manufacturer can "ride the fashion cycle".
Obsolescence by depletion

When a product consumes a resource, as when a computer printer consumes ink and paper, it is generally understood that this is unavoidable. But some products also consume related resources that need not be consumed. For example, a 4-colour inkjet printer that is used mostly for printing in gray scale and seldom in colour, may be pre-programmed to deplete colour inks while printing black, so that the colour cartridge(s) must be replaced more often.
Innovation is important - it's almost as important as "creative destruction". This is probably the reason why Steve Jobs was so important - he was a capitalist, but he was a capitalist of a dying breed of capitalists: He was an innovator, a creator of new markets, instead of a technocrat who simply fired his employees by the thousands each time his company wasn't doing well because of the luck of innovation (think HP, Nokia, etc.). Of course, Apple's early products (the Macintosh, the mouse, etc.) were much more "useful" that its current products (the ipad, etc). Apple is now essentially relying on the desire of "the common people" to feel special by owning a fashionable item they don't really need (style obsolescence). If all those ipad owners were to stop buying the newest ipad model, Apple would collapse (and the same thing applies to most of the other companies as well). So, "Planned Obsolescence" is the only way for them to rmain in power, and for us to remain poor and unsatisfied.


Here's the documentary:

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