by Anna Clark
Between the nationwide Step It Up campaign of community activism and Al Gore’s Academy-Award winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the clamor for global warming action is forcing U.S. automakers to respond. And they are—if a bit begrudgingly.
Hybrid and fuel-efficient cars are hot; GM’s gone so far as to design a plug-in concept car that may never need gasoline. Tellingly, Detroit’s road-maintenance and salt trucks run on biodiesel. With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this month that gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate fuel efficiency—expressly because global warming is a “serious threat”—we might expect a green ethic to become more inherent to American cars.
It marks a significant change for an industry built on the premise of wastefulness. Giles Slade’s illuminating book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, points to Detroit automakers for popularizing the corporate strategy that justifies the nation’s overproduction of goods by creating wants and needs in consumers.
Emerging from the 1920’s slugfest between Henry Ford and Chevrolet’s Alfred Sloan, “planned obsolescence” manifested itself as the “annual model change.” Its success in America’s flagship industry set the manufacturing standard still operating today—with disastrous environmental results.
And that is the crux of Made to Break: unless we reverse our wasteful consumer ethic now, we will pay for it with a poisoned earth.
Slade is particularly horrified by modern e-waste: Americans threw out 315 million computers in 2004, and 100 million cell phones in 2005. That’s 50,000 tons of still-usable equipment that contains permanent biological toxins (PBTs). With cell phones, Slade notes, the compact design makes them easier to toss in the trash than to disassemble them, repair them, or recycle them. This is not a new problem, as Slade recounts in his fascinating history of miniaturization.
Today’s e-waste is the direct descendent of planned obsolescence, which Slade defines as “branding, packaging, and creating disposable products (or) continuously changing the styles of nondisposable products so that they become psychologically obsolete.” It’s a sympathetic idea: if an industry produces goods that never or rarely break, it loses its customer base with every good sold. On the other hand, by producing goods that need, or seem to need, to be replaced—that market is endlessly renewable. The industry succeeds. Jobs are kept. Families are fed.
Henry Ford famously resisted planned obsolescence. When he hit his high point in 1922, he made public his reasons for refusing to modify the Model T. For all his other flaws, Ford was committed to producing a reliable, affordable product, made as well as possible.
“Ford saw his car as a great social leveler, a democratic one-size-fits-all symbol of American classlessness,” writes Slade.
Meanwhile, Sloan realized that style changes are a cheap and fast way to date cars. Minor changes create an illusion of progress—or psychological obsolescence—and with it, increased business. Sloan created the first “style department” at an American auto manufacturer. It worked. Ford was forced to step up to Sloan’s pace, or fail.
It was a painful decade for Ford, in which he made desperate attempts to make the “Tin Lizzie” and its short-lived successor, the Model A, seem classy compared to the colorful, sleek Chevrolet alternatives. He didn’t stand a chance; GM’s whole-hearted embrace of planned obsolescence proved profitable beyond belief.
“Now, Sloan worked at outdating the styling of GM’s own earlier models, in order to encourage consumers to trade in their GM cars and buy new ones. Or, more accurately, to trade up: GM began to offer graduated product lines that encouraged customers to enter a new class of prestige and comfort each time they made a trade. Nothing could have been further from Henry Ford’s vision of a classless American transportation device. If Model Ts had been democratic levelers, GM cars were now becoming social stratifiers.”
Despite the wastefulness and implicit class tensions of Chevrolet’s planned obsolescence, the public loved it. In 1932, Ford gave into the stylized annual model change, making planned obsolescence its business, and the company has never looked back.
While Made to Break articulates the auto industry’s influence on spreading the ethic planned obsolescence, it takes the story further still. It stretches from today’s e-waste resulting from stylized updates to technology, to the civic propaganda campaigns urging citizens to buy.
As early as 1917—before the auto industry jumped onto planned obsolescence—city stores displayed signs that read ‘Business as Usual. Beware of Thrift and Unwise Economy.’ Not long later, with the U.S. still in the thick of World War I, New York City retailers introduced the National Prosperity Committee, which plastered posters reading ‘Full Speed Ahead!’ ‘Clear the Track for Prosperity!’ and, most bluntly, ‘Buy What You Need Now!’ That dubious wartime duty to consume was echoed shortly after 9/11, with President George W. Bush urging Americans to not slack in their patriotic shopping.
With thrift slowly becoming “stingy,” disposable products were no longer seen as wasteful, but as more hygienic and convenient than reused products. This was a market that was created in part by “Tampax, (which) along with other disposables, not only habituated women to increasing levels of repetitive consumption, but broadened the cultural acceptance of the throwaway ethic, a necessary accompaniment to planned obsolescence.” Meanwhile, garments were tossed out as never before—mending clothes and saving rags became old-fashioned, dirty, a waste of time. Paper straws were invented, and rye stalks became obsolete. Crackers were once sold out of barrels, but once they were individually packaged and ‘branded,’ freshness was assured. Gillette invented the disposable razor—a product that guarantees its customers will come back for more. The Academy Awards emerged in this same period, and mimics the marketing strategy intended to encourage repetitive consumption.
It’s not until late in the book that Slade describes how the obsolescence of products relates to the obsolescence of skill sets and training. For example, the slide rule had been used since 1625 for complex calculations. It was compact, readily available, and yet their production ended forever in 1975. While there had been a time when slide rules and calculators existed side-by-side in classrooms, revealing class divisions, price wars resulted in quality calculators being available for under $10 by 1976.
“Of more interest than the diminishing cost of calculators and the demise of the slide rule is the obsolescence of the skill set that older-generation engineers possessed. Tom West and Carl Alsing recalled promising each other not to ‘turn away candidates’ at Data General in 1978 ‘just because the youngsters made them feel old and obsolete.’ By the early 1980s it was hard to find a recent graduate or engineering student who still used a slide rule for calculations. Older engineers, on the other hand, were reluctant to part with them. … The digital accuracy and speed that younger engineers took for granted meant less to those who had received their training before the 1970s revolution in calculation…. Thus, by the 1980s, what younger engineers perceived as a democratization of calculation had in fact sheared the engineering world along generational lines. Age, not wealth, determined which engineers had the advantage. As the hacker culture would soon demonstrate, design and engineering were no longer the exclusive activities of a carefully trained elite. The term ‘obsolete’ now applied both to the device that the older generation of administrators preferred and to the analog skills they used.”
Computers similarly rendered skill sets obsolete. New software eliminated the value of clerical work such as “minute ledger work, (and) the ability to type flawlessly.”
I heard once that the more you like a book, the more tempted you are to describe how good it is simply by quoting it. Slade has produced a book that makes me want to absorb his statistics, facts, and anecdotes so that I can serve as a sub-missionary for his primary thrust—that business practices and our consumption habits must change, lest we leave a legacy of environmental degradation, and particularly e-waste.
All true, and all fascinating, but Slade’s book does suffer from textbook symptoms—his personal analysis of the history of obsolescence weighs heavily in the preface and final chapter, and very minimally in between. More consistent analysis of his research would have resulted in a more unified book. While his chapter on ‘weaponizing planned obsolescence’ offered an intriguing history of the Cold War, its loose ends felt strange and unkempt surrounded by his tidy narrative.
Nonetheless, Slade’s book is a meticulous documentation brightened by colorful executives, innovators, advertisers, moguls, movers and shakers. The book represents a phenomenal organization of information. With a staggering assortment of primary sources, Slade produces 281 clear and concise pages. It’s a book to read, return to, and share with friends. Buy it, if you buy nothing else.
Made to Break: Technology & Obsolescence
By Giles Slade
Harvard University Press, 2006
$17.95 - Available now in hardback
About the Author
Anna Clark's writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Utne Reader, AlterNet, Writers' Journal, Bitch Magazine, Religion Dispatches, Women's eNews, ColorLines, RH Reality Check, make/shift, and other publications. She edits the blog, Isak, and she contributes video book reviews to The Collagist, a literary magazine. Anna is a 2010 Fellow with the Peter Jennings Center for Journalists and the Constitution, and she lives in Detroit, Michigan.