Saturday, January 09, 2010

consumer society is made to break


Adbusters | In 1932, Bernard London wrote, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which he blamed the Great Depression on consumers who use "their old cars, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”.

Ours is a consumer society that profits from disposability under the logic that the sooner things break the sooner they can be replaced. Production is artificially inflated through intentionally shoddy products while consumption is stimulated through commercial bombardment. Since the 1930s, manufacturers have been designing their products to be replaced frequently just as fashion designers keep us buying by making last year’s fashions look outdated. This is called planned obsolescence. I first heard about planned obsolescence from the excellent short film, The Story of Stuff.

“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized. London explained his plan simply: “I propose that when a person continues to posses and use old clothing, automobiles and buildings, after they have passed their obsolescence date, as determined at the time they were created, he should be taxed for such continued use of what is legally ‘dead’.” While the regulatory specifics of London’s plan may not have been put into place the spirit of his proposal has been adopted by product designers whose objects are meant to break.

And so we grow old in a world surrounded by things whose disposability is prized above all else. Of course, the need to constantly replace the objects in our daily life has an added benefit as well: it keeps us locked into our overworked, over stimulated and under paid daily grind. We work to buy things that are built to die so that we must work to buy more things that will break. A vicious cycle with two exits: the consumer’s debt ridden grave or the freedom of the culture jammer who refuses to replace the junk that breaks – the junk we never needed anyways.

Only 15 copies of London's pamphet remain in libraries around the world. No copy is available online. Adbusters has tracked down Bernard London's pamphlet and for the first time ever we are making it available online. Respectful bow in the direction of my man Umbrarchist.

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