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Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America

de Giles Slade

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1027207,421 (3.28)2
Listen to a short interview with Giles SladeHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane If you've replaced a computer lately--or a cell phone, a camera, a television--chances are, the old one still worked. And chances are even greater that the latest model won't last as long as the one it replaced. Welcome to the world of planned obsolescence--a business model, a way of life, and a uniquely American invention that this eye-opening book explores from its beginnings to its perilous implications for the very near future. Made to Break is a history of twentieth-century technology as seen through the prism of obsolescence. America invented everything that is now disposable, Giles Slade tells us, and he explains how disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America's rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence. His book shows us the ideas behind obsolescence at work in such American milestones as the inventions of branding, packaging, and advertising; the contest for market dominance between GM and Ford; the struggle for a national communications network, the development of electronic technologies--and with it the avalanche of electronic consumer waste that will overwhelm America's landfills and poison its water within the coming decade. History reserves a privileged place for those societies that built things to last--forever, if possible. What place will it hold for a society addicted to consumption--a whole culture made to break? This book gives us a detailed and harrowing picture of how, by choosing to support ever-shorter product lives we may well be shortening the future of our way of life as well.… (més)
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If you're interested in technological obsolescence, I recommend reading the introduction, first chapter, and last chapter of this book. The chapters in between are well-researched, in-depth essays - essentially case studies - presented chronologically. The writing is clear, and though the book was published in 2006 the problem still looms.

Most engineers in the nineteenth century designed and built their products to last. (31)

"Where man can find no answer, he will find fear." -Norman Cousins, 1945 (144)

Planned obsolescence....psychological obsolescence...grew out of "the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary." -Brooks Stevens (153)

"Our whole economy is based on planned obsolescence....We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete. We do that for the soundest reason: to make money." -Brooks Stevens (153)

"The product with the longest life period is not automatically the most economical. Value is a product of time and utility....Is a product that has served a short, useful life at a satisfactory cost necessarily wasteful?....There is not a product on the market today that could not be improved by using...more expensive materials. Every design is a compromise..." -Ernest Cunningham, 1959 (168)

[Moore's Law] Every year, smaller and smaller electronic devices became available for less and less cost, and these devices became at least twice as capacious and twice as fast as their immediate predecessor, effectively quadrupling the value of each generation of chip. (196-197)

These apps [WordStar, VisiCalc, dBASE] empowered new users while rendering old skill sets - minute ledger work, the ability to type quickly and flawlessly - completely obsolete. (208)

Electronic components have extremely short lives. [Cell phones and TVs] are creating unmanageable mounds of electronic waste each time they are thrown away. All of the discarded components in this growing mountain of e-waste contain high levels of permanent biological toxins (PBTs)...(261)

Because the toxins contained in most electronics are indestructible, the EU has banned their use by manufacturers and consumers. This ban is proving to be an effective encouragement to the development of alternative, non-toxic materials for electronic manufacture...Although some legislation now exists at the state level, there is no uniformity, no consistency, and no funding for electronic waste disposal programs throughout the United States.
The increasingly short life span of high-volume electronic goods, along with miniaturization, is what causes the e-waste problem. This lack of durability, in turn, grows from a unique combination of psychological and technological obsolescence. (262)

It makes no sense to call a discarded but working phone obsolete when the same make and model is still available for purchase and continues to provide excellent service to its owners. (264)

"...the increasingly rapid evolution of technology has effectively rendered everything 'disposable.'" (265)

...modern consumers tend to value whatever is new and original over what is old, traditional, durable, or used. (265)

Colin Campbell on the mystery of modern consumption: "an activity which involves an apparently endless pursuit of wants, the most characteristic feature of modern consumption being this insatiability." (265)

"Americans are poorly equipped to recognize, let alone ponder or address, the challenges technology poses....Although our use of technology is increasing...there is no sign of an improvement in our ability." -Committee on Technological Literacy's 2002 report (280)

Very soon, the sheer volume of e-waste will compel America to adopt design strategies that include not just planned obsolescence but planned disassembly and reuse as part of the product life cycle. This is the industrial challenge of the new century. (281)
  JennyArch | May 9, 2013 |
This book sheds light into the practice of planned obsolescence, one that is as crucial to a consumerist economy as advertisement and private credit, although sadly less known. Unfortunately, the most interesting parts of Slade's story are diluted with bits and pieces of the history of technology that do not bring much to the main subject. ( )
  timtom | Apr 16, 2012 |
Generally I enjoyed the book although I found the subject matter disturbing. I have continued to read about this subject and it just makes me more and more frustrated with our throw-away economy. There are places where consumers can fight the system by buying used or making ones own, but technology is one of thos places where we are at the mercy of manufacturers and the market. ( )
  EvaCatHerder | Oct 20, 2008 |
A very detailed group of essays about why things are planned to go out of style, from the Model-T to the Ipod. If you read one chapter (essay) ready that about the cell phones and ipods that are glutting landfills.
  galpalval | Nov 28, 2007 |
4263 Made To Break Technology and Obsolescence in America, by Giles Slade (read 22 Jan 2007) This is a 2006 book published by Harvard University Press and written by "an independent scholar and freelance writer." It is an oddly organized book which spends a lot of time on obsolescence and the fact that at times things are made not to last too long so there will be repeat sales. Much he says makes sense, but he says some odd things, like that Gertrude Ederle (who swam the English Channel in 1926) was Queen of Romania, and that the U.S. did not formally declare war until Feb 2, 1942. The book is full of interesting things I know little about, and was well worth reading. ( )
  Schmerguls | Oct 28, 2007 |
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Listen to a short interview with Giles SladeHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane If you've replaced a computer lately--or a cell phone, a camera, a television--chances are, the old one still worked. And chances are even greater that the latest model won't last as long as the one it replaced. Welcome to the world of planned obsolescence--a business model, a way of life, and a uniquely American invention that this eye-opening book explores from its beginnings to its perilous implications for the very near future. Made to Break is a history of twentieth-century technology as seen through the prism of obsolescence. America invented everything that is now disposable, Giles Slade tells us, and he explains how disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America's rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence. His book shows us the ideas behind obsolescence at work in such American milestones as the inventions of branding, packaging, and advertising; the contest for market dominance between GM and Ford; the struggle for a national communications network, the development of electronic technologies--and with it the avalanche of electronic consumer waste that will overwhelm America's landfills and poison its water within the coming decade. History reserves a privileged place for those societies that built things to last--forever, if possible. What place will it hold for a society addicted to consumption--a whole culture made to break? This book gives us a detailed and harrowing picture of how, by choosing to support ever-shorter product lives we may well be shortening the future of our way of life as well.

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