Consumerism as conspiracy (and I believe it!)


The interior of the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street. In the Victorian style, it's cluttered with stuff. (Creative Commons-licensed photo from the Flickr account of practicalowl)

Here’s an article written by a professor in my academic department, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin. I haven’t yet had her in class; she’s on sabbatical this semester.

In this she’s written the most complete, historically accurate magazine-format depiction of planned obsolescence I’ve ever read. And I’ve read several great ones.

Planned obsolescence is, in my own words, designing something to wear out, give out, or otherwise become unusable or out of style after a certain amount of time. Which prompts the consumer to buy another.

It hasn’t always been around; in fact, it has only governed business practices in the last 80-90 years, and, arguably, the vast majority of it has popped up in the last 40 years.

In my opinion, it’s dishonest. In most cases, we (well, industrial engineers) know how to make stuff last, say, ten or a hundred times as long as it “normally” lasts in our experience. Why don’t we? People like to make money.

Obviously it’s destroying our planet, and to a certain extent, our souls, if you believe in that kind of thing. I like good product design as much (and probably a lot more) than the next guy, but what happens to our humanity if we’re never satisfied with what we have?

One man asked that and came up with the “100 Thing Challenge,” where he sold, donated, or put into storage all his possessions except a carefully-chosen 100 things—for one year. He got coverage by Time magazine online and now has a book deal with Harper Perennial.

My sister today said something like “I’m against the production of new stuff.” She thinks the world has everything it needs, and if we just passed it all around—Freecycle, that sort of thing—we’d all be better off.

I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.

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