Built-in Obsolescence, or How Consumerism Beat Genius

Candles are magical, but light bulbs have a magic that candles don’t have.  One never sees a cartoon with a candle symbolizing a person having a brilliant idea.  Light bulbs represent human genius.

But recently, as I watched the documentary Planned Obsolescence, aka The Lightbulb Conspiracy, I learned about a lightbulb that has been emitting light for over a century in California, and how it was designed by Adolphe Chailet prior to the year in the early 20th Century when the lightbulb cartel (yes, you happen to live on a planet that has a lightbulb cartel) gathered to decide that from then on, lightbulbs would have a short life of several years and that people would be forced to buy light bulbs again in spite of the fact that the technology existed to create lightbulbs that would function for a century.

There are no added benefits to new time-bomb light bulbs.  No innovation, no new technology that we should be grateful for.  The only reason for this shift was profit.

The technology to build the lightbulb that has been lit in a Livermore, California, fire station for over a century –whose 100th birthday was celebrated as an act of generating awareness, and more recently the 110th birthday– was either destroyed or has been kept secret all this time.  Those who stand to profit from sales of light bulbs make sure that no one is allowed to build lightbulbs of their original quality anymore.  As I understand it, General Motors headed this brilliant initiative to ban the better quality of the original.

The computer industry also plans and builds-in the obsolescence of its gadgets.  Oftentimes, the next great thing has already been planned years in advance, so that by the time we install Gadget 3.0, they already know what Gadget 5.0 will look like.  But there are fortunes to be made with each upgrade.

Obsolescence is not only functional, it can also be systemic.  A light bulb may explode like a time bomb … or a computer may simply no longer be compatible with many of the other gadgets that we use.  In all cases, the makers of these goods benefit handsomely from obsolescence.

This is not entirely bad: competition is better than monopoly … but the consumer who wishes to take advantage of a vast array of computer aps will probably have to own both Mac and PC.  We’ve all seen the Mac vs. PC commercials: here are two artificial brains that don’t like to talk to each other much.  Oftentimes competition takes precedence over pragmatic considerations.

Some consumers (particularly in developed countries) are so docile and so easy to manipulate that, lured by the commercials, they will happily buy two, three computers, just to have the latest updates whereas computer users in India and many of the poorer countries only buy a new computer as a last resource.  They always have computer geeks to fix and upgrade their gadgets at low cost or no cost.

Planned obsolescence has a huge environmental effect, adding millions of tons of trash in the developed world while in the third world people often would never think of throwing away an outdated computer.  Parts are recycled, and they’re very much in demand.

There needs to be a balance between competition and profit on the one hand, and pragmatism and inventiveness on the other.  I’m sure that, just as we have geek squads in every city who can fix almost any computer problem, somewhere, somebody knows how to make Chailet’s light bulb.  I wonder what would happen if he or she were to put it in the market …

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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