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Technology and Obsolescence

‘Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America’ by Giles Slade; Harvard University Press, 2007. 336pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 30 November 2007

I wasn’t looking forward to this book. The title seemed to sum up two popular contemporary pastimes, a despondency about societal progress and a condescension towards American (over)consumption. With its dust-jacket displaying a mountain of discarded computer screens I was anticipating yet another environmental diatribe about the woeful, wanton, wasteful animal that is man. I regularly notice that books with first impressions such as these, tend to forewarn of a misanthropic authorial cri de couer.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair bit of that in this book. Arch-environmentalist Jeremy Leggett (described as a ‘petroleum scientist’ rather than the head of a solar panel company) and anti-modernity author Ronald Wright make appearances, but their browbeating plays second fiddle to a well-researched, well-written and page-turning account of the history of capital production and product consumption patterns over the last 100 years. Slade comes clean at the end of the book and admits reluctantly that he is ‘an unfashionable Canadian who writes admiringly about America’s excesses and success.’ This is, in general, a non-hectoring history of product development in the USA.

The book examines a range of products that exemplify historical periods throughout the previous century: from early car production, wartime electronics, post-war fashion, Fifties radios, cars (again) in the Sixties, home computers in the Seventies, information transfer at the end of the Cold War, and finally, the ubiquitous mobile phone. Even this quick list of examples doesn’t do full justice to the range, depth and detail that Slade has brought to this topic, all handled within a structure that manages to avoid historical repetition and, in large part, reads like a series of whodunnits.

Each section explores the theoretical underpinning of the development of new products and the rendering obsolete of the old. Its central focus is on the ‘profound ambivalence concerning thrift and waste’ shown by Americans over the span of the 20th century. The US Treasury’s campaign for national frugality in the 1920s, for example, were countered by the business community’s admonishment that ‘miserliness is despicable… fatal to character and a danger to the community and nation.’ These tensions came to the fore with Henry Ford versus Alfred Sloan of General Motors. It is a little know fact that Ford wanted ‘the man who buys one of our cars never to have to buy another’ It was nearly his downfall as discerning motorists preferred Harley Earl’s GM styling over the black and boring Model T.

Throughout, Slade distinguishes between product obsolescence resulting from technological advance, psychological obsolescence that manipulates consumers into buying a better looking model regardless of technical advances, and planned obsolescence which signifies a manufacturer’s built-in limit to durability to ensure repeat replacement business. It is to this latter, more cynical business practice (known as ‘death dating’) that he shows his distaste, tinged with sneaking admiration. ‘Deliberate obsolescence’ he says, ‘is a uniquely American invention… we invented the very concept of disposability itself, as a necessary precursor to our rejection of tradition and our promotion of progress and change.’

Character vignettes are beautifully drawn although his understandable desire to cram every researched fact onto each page can be a little wearing. The study of radio development and the early computing technologies left me cold (but maybe that’s just me). The section on Cold War disinformation was absolutely fascinating, but tangential. The chapters that deal with the so-called theorists of brand management on the other hand, are much more direct, challenging and informative. From Thorstein Veblen to Marshall McLuhan to Victor Papanek – with a hundred other lesser-known but influential social commentators along the way – Slade doesn’t necessarily develop any new theories, but he does pull a lot of diverse threads together and provides renewed insight into what is thought of as a modern concern.

Ironically, he forgets himself in the final chapter. Throughout the book he restrains from passing judgement on, for example, the scrap produced over the hundred years of the automobile, or throwaway fashions, etc. But in the last chapter, exonerating my earlier fears, he insists that there is something qualitatively different about the contemporary period of disposable ‘e-waste’. In a chapter that over-flatters tipping point ‘theory’ and over-hypes toxic paranoia, he advocates that ‘technologically-aware’ (read: ‘socially aware’) consumers should exercise their power to make manufacturers clean up their act. Here he is repeating Vance Packard’s claim that ‘buying habits (are) directly controlled through subliminal techniques’ for socially manipulative ends. But this time, ominously, he supports the subliminal messages as he is confident that they have moral right on their side.

Apart from this nascent authoritarian view that we need to inculcate a socially responsible attitude towards the manufacture of products – a view which is out of character with the rest of his writing – this book is a great read, a intelligent intervention and a first rate social history resource.