Saturday, August 15, 2009

Longevity and obsolescence

Every once and a while I hold some utilitarian object in my hand and marvel at how long I’ve had it. The most recent example was a humble nail clipper. In our age, to have an artifact in continuous use for a decade or two is remarkable. My kids are amazed if something is older than a year or two.

This was not always so. In older, less productive societies than our own, useful objects were handed down for generations, and it would not be uncommon for an artisan to be using tools that had belonged to his or her grandparent. But our society is SO productive, and for some reason, rather than taking the rewards of our productivity in increased leisure, we’ve chosen to use it to produce throwaway junk.

One person to recognize this tendency was that controversial and problematic economist, the late John Kenneth Galbraith. He made it, in fact, one of the centerpieces of his work, starting with The Affluent Society, and constructed an elaborate and interesting, if not ultimately convincing, system to explain it. But I find that the easiest way to understand our obsession with the new, and dispositiveness toward the old, is to go back beyond Galbraith, and find an explanation in Marxian terms.

The driving force of a capitalist economy is the desire of people with a little property to become wealthy, and the desire of those who are wealthy to become wealthier still. The wealthy derive their wealth from profits – essentially a tax on the labor of those who work. In order to maximize this tax, the working hours of the laboring population must be maximized. What better way to do this, in a world in which technology has exploded productive capacity, than by establishing a cult of the “new”. Admittedly, this cult of newness builds on the natural curiosity of humans and other primates, but it also serves the interests of the owning classes very well; and can anybody argue that corporate advertising campaigns don’t do EVERYTHING in their power to reinforce and develop it?

Of course planned obsolescence, in which products are built to fall apart after a short period of time helps, too. Late capitalism carefully defends itself against any natural selection-type processes of the market, which might discriminate against such ephemeral products. It is generally impossible to distinguish, at time of purchase, between an object that will soon fall apart and one that will not, and constant changes of brand and style protect the producer from the revenge of the customer when it comes time for replacement.

So this is where our dependence on “free enterprise” has led us. Instead of using our marvelous technology to produce (as it well could!) durable and well-functioning things that serve us for generations, free us from much toil, and greatly enhance our well being, our monkey instincts are manipulated by the greedy to force us to work endlessly in the creation of mountains of garbage, partly to satisfy our own love of novelty, but mostly to serve the relentless drive for wealth and luxury on the part of someone else.

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