Disposing with Disposability

An Interview with Giles Slade


| October 5, 2006


The electronics industry has become pretty trashy business. The Environmental Protection Agency cites estimates that 130 million cell phones are thrown out in the United States each year and 250 million computers will be out-of-date in less than five years. These figures aren't surprising when you consider the races between companies to release faster computers, flatter televisions, and fancier cell phones as quickly as consumers can whip out their credit cards. Chalk it all up to 'planned obsolescence,' the strategy of deliberately building a product?that quickly loses its?usefulness so that consumers will line up for the newer, better model. In a new book,Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America(Harvard University 2006), Giles Slade traces the history of planned obsolescence in the United States from the throwaway paper shirt collars of the 1800s to today's pricey iPods and BlackBerrys, those constantly evolving high-tech gadgets that are under warranty for only a year. Utne.com's Rachel Anderson spoke with Slade from his home in Richmond, British Columbia, about the future of planned obsolescence.

How did you become interested in disposability?

I was really interested in how rude people are in North America, and I started thinking that that was part of being short on time. I had been teaching American Studies in the United Arab Emirates and when I came back to Canada in January of 2002, I experienced real culture shock. Your day in an Arab country is filled with little interactions with people -- you argue over five cents or a dollar and you take your time doing it. When I got back, downtown Vancouver felt like -- excuse the expression --'Fuck you. Next!' I started wondering when we lost our sense of social interaction and duration in personal relations. It seemed to happen at the beginning of the 21st century, right around the time that disposable products became really prominent. I started doing a lot of reading and realized our attitudes towards material goods condition our attitudes towards each other. Then I ran across a French theorist [Gilles Lipovetsky] who said that in the early 20th century we made a transition from a very traditional culture to a fashion culture, where everything durable and traditional is discarded and where we become used to quick changes, quick interactions, and superficial relationships between people. I started digging and Made to Break is what I came up with.

You talk in your book about how disposability made thriftiness -- such as saving rags in the early part of last century -- taboo. Are there modern examples of this?

I've written against the disposability of iPods and I thought people would say, 'Yeah, we're being cheated!' But a lot of bloggers and people on the internet write about how wonderful the disposability of the iPod is because you can get the next best thing really quickly. They seem to be missing the point. I mean, you pay $350 for a device, load all your songs onto it -- songs that cost you a dollar a piece -- surely, you want it to last longer than a year. Older people seem to agree with me, and younger people seem not to.

It seems like pretty much everything has a shorter shelf life today. You make note of Henry Ford and how he had a commitment to building durable products. Are there companies out there right now upholding this principle?