Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
If there is to be a great anti-technology bogeyman, that dubious honor may belong to General Ned Ludd: the great marauding miscreant, armed with a sledgehammer and an army of acolytes who have come to smash the offending machines. As an epithet the term Luddite has come to represent a sort of unthinking technophobia matched with the maddened desire to simply destroy the machinery of the modern world. Yet when one views today’s piles of technological wreckage it is hard not to conclude that the historical luddites (and those who are called “luddites” by people with no understanding of historical luddism) destroyed very little compared to the greatest of machine breakers, namely: those whose profits depend upon the creating and selling of machinery.
Indeed when it comes to machine breaking there is a darkly amusing parallel between those who sought to smash the machines that they feared (rightly) would destroy their way of life and those whose way of life grew to depend upon selling machines that would “require” replacement every few years. Indeed one of the triumphs of technology firms is the creation of devices much more efficient than Ned Ludd’s hammer: for the technology of today doesn’t need to be smashed, it smashes itself.
Even if it technically still works just fine.
Over the course of the summer of 2013 the cellular phone company T-Mobile launched a campaign based around people’s frustrations at having to wait to upgrade their cell phones. The ad’s asked for users to submit their stories about why they were eager to get an upgrade (using the Twitter hashtag #Hate2Wait) for the chance to win a 730 Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. The essence of the campaign was eloquently summed up by the company with the following message:
— T-Mobile (@TMobile) July 19, 2013
Beyond a simple giveaway, the promotion was based around hyping the T-Mobile Jump program, which will allow users to trade in their phones for upgrades more often. As T-Mobile attempted to increase their profits by exploiting the eagerness of users for trading in their phones more frequently a similar program was announced by Apple in which users can trade in their old iPhones (assuming they are in excellent conditions) for the opportunity to earn up to $280 of credit towards purchasing…hold for anticipation…a new iPhone.
These programs are not based around helping people to replace broken phones, after all, to obtain the maximum refund for an old iPhone it needs to be in pristine working order. Rather these are programs that aim to entice users to trade in perfectly functional technology for newer technology, with the goal being to get users to make these trade-ins with ever more frequency. Regardless of the fact – restating for emphasis – that the device being traded in functions just fine.
It is not so much that this is an example of planned obsolescence but of the fact that in the world of consumer electronics the plan is obsolescence.
Giving consumers the opportunity to replace their devices with newer ones is cast as an example of a company responding to consumer demand, when in reality it is simply an example of these companies manufacturing a consumer demand based upon a demand of the company’s shareholders: sell more phones. From the standpoint of whether or not a given piece of technology still works these campaigns to encourage speedier “upgrading” are nonsense; however, making consumers continually trade in older models to buy newer ones is very much the logic of technology companies. A person may not really need to buy a new iPhone, but Apple needs them to buy one, a need that is so great that Apple is willing to give them a discount on a new phone (through the “buying back” of the old phone) to ensure that consumption never stops. By firmly ensconcing consumers in this cycle of buy—briefly use—replace—repeat technology becomes disposable and if the cycle is established strongly consumers will not even bother to think about whether or not there really was anything wrong with the device they already had. Furthermore buying up older phones may enable a company to sell these (at a discount) to less tapped regions of the world market and thereby bring in new sets of consumers to this cycle.
This is not meant to suggest that there is no difference between various cell phone models. In particular the jump from what were commonly called “feature phones” to “smart phones” represents a genuine shift in technological capabilities which needs to be acknowledged. Yet the mad rush of planned obsolescence is rarely about such genuine large shifts, instead it has more to do with the shift from one iPhone model to the next or the difference between two reasonably similar devices. It is the T-Mobile ad-speak claiming “smartphones get pretty dumb after 2yrs.” When in actuality the difference is primarily that in two years a phone with a slightly bigger screen has now become available. The more significant point being that if “smartphones get pretty dumb after 2 yrs” it has less to do with any quality inherent to smartphones but instead is related to the way in which consumer electronics are created in our society.
Anybody with a basic understanding of technological history (specifically in its interaction with capitalism) will recognize that planned obsolescence is not particularly new; however, the unsubtle encouraged obsolescence of devices such as cell phones is particularly galling. This was commented upon by Giles Slade in his history of planned obsolescence Made to Break (which was published in 2006, a year before the first iPhone model appeared on the market) wherein he notes of cell phones – after first noting that most cell phones are retired after only about eighteen months:
“people who already have cell phones are replacing them with newer models, people who do not have cell phones already are getting their first ones (which they too will replace within approximately eighteen months), and, at least in some parts of the world, people who have only one cell phone are getting a second or third. Such a pattern renders the term “obsolescence” itself obsolete. 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.” (Giles, 264)
The key (which Giles explores elsewhere in his book) is therefore for the companies manufacturing these phones to convince their consumers that those phones that are over two years old are no longer fine, and to come up with ways (be it “Jump” or a buyback program) to encourage users to take a more active role in the cycle of planned obsolescence. When one steps back there is a certain level of amusing absurdity to ad campaigns like Apple’s buyback and T-Mobile’s #Hate2Wait for hidden within the logic of the ads is a certain sense that the company has actually sold the user a crummy product in the past (one that has gotten “pretty dumb after 2 yrs”) and thus it must be replaced. Though at this point there is little doubt, by anybody, that these devices that are purchased to replace the older ones, will themselves need to be replaced in 2 years.
Thus it will be no surprise if T-Mobile’s next ad campaign may declare that smart phones get “pretty dumb” after eighteen months, or one year, or sixth months, or…by the time you leave the store.
While technological “progress” may seem to suggest a never ending flow of slightly improved consumer electronics it is essential to recognize that the true “progress” here is only in the bank accounts of tech executives growing progressively larger. Or, to put it another way, the degree to which modern technological devices like cell phones seem to be built to be replaced every two years is not a result of the devices themselves and is not a result of anything essential to the design of these devices, rather it is a reflection of the values and biases built into these devices by those who manufacture and market them. A conscious decision has been made at some point within these corporate structures wherein trade-ins and newer models were chosen instead of opting for devices that would last (and might be upgradeable without having to buy a whole new device).
Smart phones and the replaceable consumer electronics of their ilk match the frustration that Herbert Read evoked in his essay To Hell With Culture wherein he observed:
“The whole of our capitalist culture is one immense veneer: a surface refinement hiding the cheapness and shoddiness at the heart of things.” (Read, 30)
Though it may seem that smart phones are perfect examples of the “veneer” and “surface refinement” the important point to keep track of is that this is a “cheapness and shoddiness” that is chosen for these devices and one that is projected regardless of how much it may actually be false. We have not yet reached the point at which smart phones literally stop working altogether when they reach their “trade in” date, and thus much of the “cheapness and shoddiness” is a set of attitudes of which consumers must be convinced. Read advances this concept further, recognizing that his stance may lead some to believe that he favors only a “culture of pots and pans” to which he offers the bold retort:
“I do not despise a culture of pots and pans, because, as I have already said, the best civilizations of the past may be judged by their pots and pans.” (Read, 30)
Smart phones, of course, are not pots and pans, but Read’s point should still give one pause as one considers the concept of obsolescence. For, if pots and pans are items with particular design values that were meant to be used and reused until no longer usable than devices like smart phones appear at the opposite end of the spectrum — as devices built for limited use before being discarded to be replaced by yet another vaguely different device. To further Read’s concern is to be willing to ask what will this mountain of e-waste (discarded phones galore) look like from an archeologist’s perspective? Especially if these archeologists are somehow able to detect that these devices were discarded long before their usefulness wore out.
At work within these notions of planned obsolescence is a certain hatred towards the culture of “pots and pans” that Read was so willing to defend. For the embrace of technology requires a society to be thoroughly and greedily obsessed not with stability or well-made goods but rather with that which is new. The success of planned obsolescence requires not simply the abandonment of still working devices, but the cultural belief that “new” equals good while “old” (which is really just “less new”) represents bad or backwards. Of this obsession Theodor Adorno wrote (in Minima Moralia):
“The cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new. The never-changing quality of machine-produced goods, the lattice of socialization that enmeshes and assimilates equally objects and the view of them, converts everything encountered into what was a fortuitous specimen of a species, the doppelganger of a model.” (Adorno, 250)
And this is a sentiment towards “the new” that should be viewed alongside another line from Adorno of relevance to this matter, namely:
“Rampant technology eliminates luxury, but not by declaring privilege a human right; rather, it does so by both raising the general standard of living and cutting off the possibility of fulfillment.” (Adorno, 127)
What this pair of quotations from Adorno reveals, apropos planned obsolescence, is the degree to which an obsession with new goods simply results in a failure to recognize that the “new” is almost indistinguishable from the “old,” whilst these new technological luxuries bind us to a system in which there can be no fulfillment distinct from continually trading in one device for a slightly newer model. While technological change may result in some new machines rendering older ones less useful, a system that puts all value on ever newer machines has much less to do with anything related to technology (as such) but is instead a signifier of the larger society. In order for planned obsolescence to reach the pitch of today, the original plan must have been obsolescence.
Smart phones do not get “pretty dumb after 2 yrs” unless they are designed to do so, and the real mental failure here is not on the part of the device but on the part of the society that thinks nothing of such impressive technological devices that we are convinced are so very shoddy. Ultimately, it is buying this technological propaganda – not the actual technology – that is pretty dumb.
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Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.
Read, Herbert. To Hell With Culture. Schocken, 1963.
Slade, Giles. Made to Break. Harvard, 2006.