Feature: Born To Die


Posted May 26, 2016 in More

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I’m writing this piece on a white MacBook from 2008. The plastic sides are held together with bright yellow masking tape. The trackpad has lost most of its sensitivity and if you want to move the cursor you have to scratch at it like you’re removing the sticker from the side of an apple. A real apple.

In the top corner of the screen, a small black growth had started to spread across the display, only to stop and then miraculously recede – but not completely. It weighs more now than when I bought it and I don’t think that’s just from the masking tape. I suspect the motherboard is breeding.

If I unplug it, or more accurately, if it unplugs itself, the battery lasts just a fraction less than the time it takes to dive under the table, grab the cable and plug it back in. So that means restarting the thing.

Whenever I have to restart my laptop, I make a shopping list, go do that and by the time I’ve come back the screen with all its various warnings about Java, Adobe, Firefox and Safari being four years out of date is back and I’m in business. One time I clicked on iPhoto by accident and the keypad got so hot you could have toasted a sandwich on it. I don’t even try to go online. Last time I did, I got the wheel of death for a whole afternoon. When I finish this article I’ll transfer it onto a pen drive – thankfully one USB port still works – and put it on a working computer, and file from there.

Once, when I took the laptop to a store to see if it was repairable, the guy told me that what I had is not a MacBook, it’s a typewriter.

I’ve never owned anything that suffered such a spectacular decline as the laptop I’m writing this article on. But what’s even more spectacular is how predictable all this was, and how predictable we humans are when there’s a buck to be made.

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Planned obsolescence has been around since the invention of the lightbulb but don’t dare blame it on Thomas Eddison. In fact, visit his museum in New Jersey and you’ll still find a couple of his originals burning brightly. It was the people who came after him and realised that Tom had actually done too good a job that introduced it. General Electric assembled a cartel of light bulb manufacturers in the early part of the last century and got them all to sign up to producing 1,000-hour lightbulbs. If any of the companies made lightbulbs that exceeded that time – they made them work too good – they were fined.

It says an awful lot about what kind of people we are that we would stymie our own genius in order to create a more profitable yet inferior product.

General Motors tried to do the same thing as General Electric but Ford refused, claiming that engineering integrity was being undermined. Henry might have been right, but eventually they had to join in with the annual best-car-yet malarky when GM whacked them in sales.

The result of all this incessant, valueless design is clear if you take a drive across most North American states today. The roads are clogged with disarmed military vehicles in primary colours with Spanish-sounding names, but not regular cars. If you design something too much, it turns into something else.

Planned obsolescence is as frustrating for the designer as it is for the eventual owner of the product. The designer has to handicap herself and the owner ends up with a product that stops performing for no good reason after a short time. Once it has stopped performing it ends up in landfill, and as everyone knows now, landfill is no more a solution than drinking away your sorrows is.

In Europe, legislation is making something of an impact. From this year on, every electronic product introduced must have a two-year warranty minimum. But two years is a very low bar and doesn’t go any way toward ending planned obsolescence, it only slightly slows its rapaciousness.

The greatest change, and this sounds like something from the Bernie Sanders lexicon, is coming from the grassroots. Last year I went to a restart party in Los Angeles. A restart party is a party in the mildest sense. The neighbours don’t complain, the place doesn’t get trashed and the only people drinking alcohol are keeping it a big secret. At a restart party you bring your toolkit and whatever electronic device you own that’s given up the ghost too early. I had never heard about restart parties before but a friend of mine, Jessica, who lives there wanted to go.

Jessica had a problem. Her Epson printer had committed seppuku. One morning she woke up to print off the next page of her thesis when every single light on the thing shot on and started flashing. She unplugged and replugged and was met with the same reaction. She played with the idea that maybe the printer was some kind of secret, cosmic early warning device and that she, Jessica, was the only one on the planet being entrusted with this information but then she Googled her printer and found the fate of mankind was not in her hands, rather her printer had a common-as-hell kill chip inserted in it.

We went to the restart party to remove the kill chip, or at least reason with it.

Cliff was a rogue product engineer. Now retired, he attends restart parties all over the States where he helps people hack into their own devices to replace unreplaceable batteries and talk kill chips back to life.

What this is, Cliff said, is a device they claim will stop the printer leaking when it’s old but it has the dual function of robbing you of a perfectly working printer. Cliff hooked his computer up to the printer and a whole bunch of cyrillic appeared on his screen. I use Serbian software, he said. Do you know how to read it? we asked. I have a feel for what they might be trying to say, he said. Seconds later the flashing lights stopped and the printer shot out the last page of Jessica’s thesis.

He was never really dead, Cliff said.

Crazy, Jessica said, why would a company do that?

Cliff rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. And he wasn’t trying to make them click.

The problem, Cliff said, is we’re in a race to the bottom. Everyone’s got enough stuff. So the only way the big companies can get you to buy more is if they make it so your stuff falls apart a month or two after your warranty runs out.

Outside of restart parties you have the recent rise of ‘fairphones’, phones that aren’t made in factories where conditions are so inhumane that staff either quit or kill themselves. They’re also made in such a way that they can be upgraded manually by simply unscrewing them open and sliding the upgrade into place. Still, set against the big players and without the kind of legislation to allow them a fair piece of the market, fair phones are, for the moment, rare phones.

Consumer electronics have been the last great cash cow of the modern world, but that’s changing. You can make a TV HD, 4D, smart, concave, ultra-thin, mega-thin but the only people re-buying them are money launderers and the people designing departure lounges. The IFA in Berlin and the CES in Las Vegas are the two great electronics trade shows that govern what people buy each other for Christmas. I used to edit their daily paper. Seriously, only a few years ago they had to get girls in bikinis to stand up on stage to get even a sniff of interest in what they were launching. With phones, it’s no different. I remember interviewing a Samsung rep after a long day of interviews. He was bemoaning the new Samsung gear because he said, it’s not very good, we just needed to do something. Nowadays the buzz word at these events is ‘future-proofing’ because marketers realise that churning out the same old, same old each year is still a viable strategy, but less so.

A more honest form of future proofing has existed in the fashion world for a long time. Dr. Martins boots and shoes come with a guarantee that they will repair them for you, for ever. So long as you can remember where you filed your receipt from ten years ago. It’s the same with Patagonia. The outdoor company will fix anything they’ve ever sold you. I have a friend in Italy who inherited her dad’s Patagonia Alpine performance coat. The sort of thing you’d climb K2 in. He had it repaired and she’s had it repaired too, pretending to be him of course. The Patagonia team didn’t mind repairing a piece of very serious mountaineering equipment for an 80-year-old. They even wished him the best of luck in his future adventures. Patagonia run events at their stores where you can go along and they’ll have a team with sewing machines on hand to patch your leaky duck down jacket for another season.

In homeware too you have companies like Le Creuset who have a cast-iron guarantee. It means that the pot you boil your veg in today will probably be the same pot your children cook in in the future. Assuming they’re still talking to you after they’ve inherited a planet stripped of wild animals, trees and drinking water.

Aldous Huxley had this to say about planned obsolescence: “Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence – those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse. And while you people are over-consuming the rest of the world sinks more and more deeply into chronic disaster.”

70 years ago, the dangers of planned obsolescence were already very apparent. With some products, craftsmanship and design integrity are what makes them sell – with electronics progress is slower because the technology is constantly changing. What has changed about casserole dishes in the last 100 years? The problem inherent in this change is the waste that it creates.

Ghana is unfairly known as the e-waste republic. Shipping connections, peace and poverty make it an ideal candidate for the dumping of products that we no longer use in the west. The people who pile through the waste electronics and give them a second life call themselves ‘black geeks’.  In Accra your local corner shop will replace your motherboard while you’re buying cigarettes. The downside to this job is obviously the impact on health. Boys as young as 16 are dying of cancer, lead poisoning, iron poisoning and copper poisoning, according to the International Growth Centre.

Samples taken across the whole city show lead levels in the soil, from all the leaking phone and computer parts, are at a level that means anything you grow there is poisonous.

The question why we don’t do better when we can is neatly answered in the 1951 comedy The Man in the White Suit, written by Alexander MacKendrick. It’s about a wacky inventor in a small mill town in England. The inventor also works at the mill. He comes up with an idea to make a material that doesn’t get dirty and doesn’t tear. He’s invented the perfect suit material from a mixture of cotton and radioactive material. The material is so good that it actually glows bright white.

Bear in mind the time when this movie came out, a time when atomic bombs were no secret but nuclear fallout and radioactive poisoning still were, so it was conceivable that you could wear radioactive material next to your skin and the worst that would happen to you is your chances of finding sex would improve.

The movie ends with the local factory workers chasing the inventor down the street and stripping him off his clothes because his invention would take away their reason to work. He has to walk home in his underwear and his invention is destroyed.

Planned obsolescence is something that can only partially be avoided. It helps if you buy products that were built before the 1930s, before the idea took hold. It helps too if you only buy things that are fixable. A lack of resources over the coming century will probably bring planned obsolescence to a natural end anyway.

But the greater planned obsolescence, the one that involves us and the kill chip that generally kicks in for men aged 75 and for women aged 82 is, at least at the time of writing, impossible to avoid.

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words Conor Creighton

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