Sunday, May 21, 2006


Men Without Hats

Today's San Francisco Chronicle review of Giles Slade's new study Made To Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America includes some interesting historical revelations:

The idea entered the American consciousness in the late 1950s and quickly became part of the critique of consumption.... Slade discovered a much earlier instance in a 1932 pamphlet by real estate broker Bernard London, who was arguing in favor of it. The Depression may seem a weird time to propose that things break down as soon as possible, but London was looking at it from the producer's standpoint. If people could be induced to replace things sooner, he reasoned, sales and jobs would increase, and the economy would improve. London seemed to want to go so far as to make planned obsolescence a legal requirement.

...Slade takes planned obsolescence one step beyond with a chapter on how the United States fed Soviet spies faulty technological designs in the '70s and '80s, so that their oil facilities and military systems broke down suddenly and sometimes spectacularly.

In a recent essay in the Christian Science Monitor, Slade also made another offhanded revelation about an unexpected casualty of cellphones: "Nearly 60 percent of American teens have never owned or worn a wristwatch. Wristwatch consumption is in a spiral of decline at a rate slightly exceeding 10 percent a year." The LA Times article that first noticed this study includes this all-too-apt comparison: " "It's like a hat," said Francis Eagan, a 21-year-old waiter from Tustin. "It serves no purpose, like earrings."

Suddenly I feel old.

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