Bibliolescence: Made to Break

It is a fact that goods are thrown away, often while they still work, in quantities and in a manner harmful to the environment. Such goods have ceased to be of use or interest to their owners. They are in some sense obsolete.

Does this mean that we can declare that such goods are, to use the title of Giles Slade’s book, Made to Break? To declare this is to link the excessive disposal of goods to planned obsolescence.

Slade has argued, in an interview, that obsolescence makes economic sense for firms: it enables them to sell more stuff. I’ve posted my suspicions about this argument before. They arise mainly from the observation that, if a particular firm’s goods rapidly become obsolete, many consumers will be reluctant to buy from that firm. Of course, this observation holds with varying force, depending on the nature of the product, of consumer preferences, and of competition.

Given this complexity, there is certainly an opportunity for a thoughtful book on the nature and history of product obsolescence. I don’t think that Slade has written that book.

Made to Break starts with some current numbers (e.g., 100 million cell phones discarded in the US in 2005). It identifies stages in the history of product obsolescence. It then goes back to the first of these stages, to the 1800s, and to episodes such as King Gillette’s invention of the disposable razor blade.

There are nine chapters, each dealing with a different time period, set of products, and cast of characters. One of my problems with the book is that the chapters don’t hang well together. They read more like magazine articles in a series than like chapters of a coherent book. They exhibit more concern for telling the stories of the individuals involved than for developing an interesting argument.

A convincing argument would, I think, have to turn on types and causes of obsolescence. Slade does quote Vance Packard, from The Waste Makers, “distinguishing three different ways that products can be made obsolescent.”

First, products can become obsolete in terms of function, when a better product is introduced. This form of obsolescence, I think, deserves more careful attention than Slade gives it. Are we to criticize the new car for being faster, or more environmentally friendly, or better in some other way, thus making older cars obsolete? Or should we criticize the older cars and those who made them? If so, are they to refrain from making cars unless and until they are convinced that the cars cannot be made obsolete?

Second, there is obsolescence of quality: the product breaks down. Third, there is obsolescence of desirability: the older product become less desirable in contrast with the newer.

Slade, like Packard, wrote about planned obsolescence. But obsolescence can occur in any one of these three ways without being planned.

One way of making a careful argument would be to look at each case of obsolescence with systematic regard for which of Packard’s three types it represents, and to what extent it can be described as “planned.” Slade doesn’t seem to me to do that, or anything that systematic.

In reading Made to Break, I read nine stories (chapters); some, but not all, of them were very interesting. I also read some disturbing accounts of current levels of waste. But the book is rather less than the sum of its parts. I’d rather have had less about the personal life of some of the characters in the stories, and more analysis.

Does Made To Break render obsolete The Waste Makers and other previous books on the same subject? Since MtB is more recent, it could be viewed as rendering TWM obsolete in terms of both function and desirability.

TWM‘s obsolescence is partial, in that it is limited to some, but not all consumers, and it was probably not planned. The previous sentence, of course, illustrates the view that obsolescence isn’t a binary variable, and isn’t always planned. That’s my view. MtB seems to me a book that often implies the opposite view, but doesn’t get round to stating or supporting it.

This post is part of a series on bibliolescence, a term I apologetically introduced in the first post of the series, and use as a delicious tag for all posts in the series.

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