Planned Obsolescence (2/4)

From Hunter Gatherers to Chronic Consumers

A quick recap…

If you read our last article, you’ll already be familiar with ‘Planned Obsolescence’; a term first coined by Bernard London in 1932, though the practice was already being implemented by the likes of GM motors and the Phoebus Cartel

The purpose of planned obsolescence is to force consumers to purchase newer products by shortening the natural end of life of the current product they own.

Aladeojebi, 2013

After reading further into planned obsolescence, we started wondering; how did we get here? How did planned obsolescence come to exist, and why?

Hunter Gatherers -> Civilisations

[…] ever since we emerged as a species, human beings have acted on and interfered in the environment around us. Indeed, the very existence of human being has an effect on ecosystems, since, like any other living being, we remove certain resources from our environment to ensure our survival and reject used materials. 

Ost, 1995

We started out, as a species, as hunter gatherers, constantly moving around. Our only priority was survival and to survive we needed security, food, water, warmth and to procreate. That might as well be the end of our article because, well… we haven’t progressed that much. 

It wasn’t long (not in an evolutionary timeline, anyway) before we stopped roaming and started settling down to greener pastures; places that had easily accessible water and fertile soil. With food and water taken care of, all we had to do to be secure was tend to our land and livestock, gather water and procreate!

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

With this security, communities began to develop and along with our growing population, basic versions of our urban cities grew. We now had people in surplus! It wasn’t necessary for everyone to constantly be engaged hunting, bearing children or tending to our lands and livestock – we had time! And we used it to start developing art and industry.

Member -> Master

At the same time as we started building civilisations, another pivotal change happened in mankind’s relationship with nature, one whose origins are the subject of much speculation.

Somewhere along the way, our perspectives changed. We shifted from an attitude of nature as divine to an anthropocentric (human centred) point of view. We developed the idea that, as man, we’re special and nature is here for us. 

Imagine what our world would be like now, without that pivotal switch in our mindset? 

“Since the beginning of time humans have had a relationship with (and consequently interfered in) the natural environment” (Pope, 2017), but that relationship used to be based on respect, even awe. We saw magic and gods in the mundane. Now our precious nature is reduced to pure resource. 

Image by Nadine Trief from Pixabay

Ost (1995) speculates that humans evolved a vocabulary toward nature that fundamentally allowed its exploitation.

The term natural resources  is a clear example of anthropomorphization and subordination of nature in favor of human beings through the symbolization of natural elements as a resource for human benefits.

Pope, 2017

Some theorise that this change in our attitude coincided with the emergence of the Christian, Islam and Jewish religions. All religions featuring an omnipotent God, a Creator, who has created the Earth for us and us in His image. 

This may be a fairly radical idea for some but as with all theories, it has its place on a spectrum of theories. 

Regardless, the fact remains that we, as a species, have morphed from “Member to Master” (Ost, 1995) where it comes to nature.

‘Actual’ Start of Planned Obsolescence

The introduction of steam power to product production systems was, truly, revolutionising. 

The industrial revolution era allowed us to produce more than ever before, we were able to mass produce for the first time yet “companies were more interested in technological improvements that were vital to the product” and eventually the consumers mostly had what they needed and what they had worked – so companies had to start convincing them that they needed more. 

“Planned obsolescence emerged at the same time as mass production started taking off because supply outweighed demand and consumers did not purchase all the products that were produced. The only way to solve the problem was to make them not last as long as they could.” 

Aladeojebi, 2013

Companies had to get smart to keep selling their products and moving their industries forward, so GM motors began to bring out vehicles in new colour ranges, the Phoebus Cartel created a light bulb limited to 1000 hours of light and Bernard London wrote a pamphlet proposing planned obsolescence as a viable end to the US economic recession.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

And we bought into it all.

“In the 1930s, consumerist pioneer Sears Roebuck began introducing a new refrigerator model each year. Though they were all essentially the same machine, “visual trappings of progress desired by consumers” kept sales up.”

Gershon, 2017

If there’s one point in history we can look back on and say ‘that was the start of planned obsolescence’, this is it. This is the point at which companies started actively marketing products to us that they knew we didn’t need and would not benefit us or contribute to the fulfilment of our basic needs.

Why, if we were so secure as a species, did we buy into the schemes of big companies? We have all our needs covered, so why do we still want when we no longer need? Why are we still consuming to the point of being consumerists?

These are the questions we try to answer in our next article.

Disclaimer

We’re not history or economics specialists; we’re very interested in and enthusiastic about our subject matter and our intention in this article is to share with you some of our research, learning and conclusions.

You can find links to further reading, peer reviewed journals and articles in the bibliography below.

Bibliography

Aladeojebi, Taiwo. (2013) Planned Obsolescence [online] at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7b94/a236e2bbb9817a10e23428acaa821a724fd0.pdf [Accessed on 08.01.20]

Bauer, M et al. (2012) Cuing Consumerism: Situational Materialism Undermines Personal and Social Well-Being [online] at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797611429579 [accessed on 21.1.20]

Buck, S. (2017) GM invented planned obsolescence during the Great Depression, and we’ve been buying it ever since [online] at https://timeline.com/gm-invented-planned-obsolescence-cc19f207e842 [accessed on 9.1.20]

Gershon, L. (2017) The Birth of Planned Obsolescence  [online] at https://daily.jstor.org/the-birth-of-planned-obsolescence/ [accessed on 9.1.20]

Keeble, D (2013) The Culture of Planned Obsolescence in Technology Companies [online] at https://www.academia.edu/6820547/Keeble_Daniel [accessed on 21.1.20] 

Krajewski, M. (2014) The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy [online] at https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/dawn-of-electronics/the-great-lightbulb-conspiracy [Accessed on 22.1.20]

Pope, K. (2017) Understanding Planned Obsolescence: Unsustainability through Production, Consumption and Waste [online] at https://books.google.es/books?hl=en&lr=&id=-NzIDQAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=history+of+planned+obsolescence&ots=nju3bkATxM&sig=0O_JuNSbRLQLIJjxKy0Z5MMDlCY#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed on 7.1.20]

Tracy, B (2004) The Psychology of Selling: How to Sell More, Easier, and Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible [online] at https://books.google.es/books?id=gSHKeL4RLwUC&pg=PA60&lpg=PA60&dq=the+psychology+of+wanting+more,+better,+better+security&source=bl&ots=doRJ71MQjD&sig=ACfU3U1R6297BH-Om1rsDtfEFx2ocG8sZA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiyiqWamornAhUR_aQKHZXRA_AQ6AEwCnoECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=the%20psychology%20of%20wanting%20more%2C%20better%2C%20better%20security&f=false [accessed on 21.1.20]

Tull, P (2014). Inhabiting Eden: A Biblical Vision of Nature [online] at https://www.humansandnature.org/inhabiting-eden-a-biblical-vision-of-nature-by-patricia-k.-tull [Accessed on 21.1.20]

White, M. Origin of Planned Obsolescence (1932 Pamphlet) [online] at https://www.micahmwhite.com/adbusters-articles/ending-the-depression-through-planned-obsolescence [accessed on 12.1.20]

Author: Anna Kommers
Spanish translation: Anna Kommers & Estefanía Lozano