Now Serving: Obsolescence

This article is part of a series, “Now Serving,” that takes a look at the changes in design, and consumer culture, that are happening right now.

“We have advanced technologically so far, and yet somehow it’s almost some sort of paranoia where we are afraid to really say: we live in the third technological revolution. I have an iPod in my pocket, I have a mobile phone, I have a laptop, but then somehow I end up going home and sitting on wood spindle whittengale like chairs. So in a way you could argue that we’re building all these really kitsch stage sets that have absolutely nothing to do with the age in which we live in. Strange. I find it very... extremely perverse in a way.

Why do we feel like we need to kinda keep revisiting the archetype over and over again?”

—Karim Rashid in Objectified (clip)

While I often disagree with Karim he is right about some of what he says. We do revisit archetypes, even when the technology we have would allow us to abandon them completely. Karim thinks it’s perverse in a way. I disagree, I think it makes sense. It is human nature.

There is a cultural shift happening today, just as surely as their was in the 80’s and 90’s with the introduction of cheap goods made in third world countries. Its roots lie in the fusion of our reactions to the availability of cheap goods, the financial instability of our current post-recession world, and the human desire for connection and permanence. And it’s happening right now.

Let’s start with a bit of history. Since the 1960s the USA and the rest of the developing world have been shifting the production of increasingly complex goods to the developing world. As the Government Accountability Office points out (referring specifically to the semiconductor industry) “Although a lower labor cost was initially a key factor that attracted firms to offshore locations, other factors such as technological advances, available skilled workers, and foreign government policy, also played roles.” (source) With an increasing number of inexpensive labor hours, friendly government policies in the developing world, and the shrinking of the world by airlines and the Internet, businesses faced lower and lower hurdles to moving production of good over seas.

This had a few consequences. First, manufacturing jobs in the developed world began to decline. Second, the cost of manufacturing goods was decreased, in some cases dramatically. I remember listening to a lesson in design school about the cost of manufacturing pots in China and how it was cheaper to produce a pieced, welded, hollow pot handle then a cast solid handle of the shame shape. Simply because the cost of materials saved was greater then the extra cost of welding, grinding, and buffing out the seams. This has, in a may ways, been a great thing for the developed world’s lifestyle as it dramatically reduced the cost of goods. Just stop and think about the reduction in the cost of a computer, earphones, or kitchen goods over the last two decades.

This brings us to the third consequence. The rise of inexpensive, disposable goods. To be clear I include anything created with planned obsolescence in mind, in the category of disposable goods. Even computers, printers, and other consumer electronics. Combine the rise of cheap labor with the plastic revolution, think The Graduate:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

(source), and the market has now become glutted with inexpensive knick-knacks that are cheaper to replace then to repair.

A quick example of this shift in manufacturing can be found in one of my current interests/obsessions. Print-making. The letterpress, which dominated printing for decades has been in large part replaced by digital offset printing. In our homes it has been replaced by ink jet and laser printers that churn out documents at a rate that would have shocked Ben Franklin. A letterpress was, and is, an expensive investment that has to be meticulously cared for and maintained. My ink jet printer is not. In fact I have, at least once, bought an entirely new printer because it was cheaper then purchasing new ink cartridges for the one I already had. Printers, and not just the items they are used to produce, have in large part become ephemera.

As this process of cheapification accelerated through the 90s, and into the first decade of the new century, it began to have an interesting effect. People weren’t happy about it. Sure we like that the goods are cheap and easily available. We enjoy the improved lifestyle it has provided for us. But, in large part you get what you pay for and we know it. Most of the goods available to us are cheap in every sense of the word. And we don’t like it.

We don’t like the idea that everything we buy will be obsolete or broken in 6 months. Humans are uncomfortable with the semi-permanence of planned-obsolescence-cheapified goods. We want commitment, good old fashioned lasting commitment. Something that we can use everyday and then hand down to our children.

The wonderful picture of the Heidelberg was taken by rutnikqueen and was used here by permission.

Published: 15 Jan 2011 | Tags: obslete , history , culture , design , Now Serving