Things fall apart

ENCYCLOPAEDIA Britannica’s announcement that it would stop publishing its print edition after 244 years brought back childhood memories of an age when research meant going to the library and the answers to most academic questions were found in the pages of a book.

A lingering image from that era was of a salesman pitching the multiple-volume set to my parents in our living room. To prove to them that their hefty investment would last, the salesman lifted an entire volume by a single page, showing them that the hardbound volumes were sturdy and built to last.

Such assurances of longevity seem out of place these days, particularly in consumer electronics.

Over the years, I have bought countless audio CD players, none of which worked trouble-free for more than a year of two, regardless of brand.

I’ve had similar experiences with inkjet printers, where repairs are invariably more expensive than the purchase of a new unit.

This kind of planned obsolescence is the subject of a 2010 documentary called “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” that can be viewed online on YouTube.

The film’s first example of planned obsolescence comes from Marcos, an office worker in Barcelona, Spain, who finds out that parts inside his Epson inkjet printer need replacement. Three stores tell him the same thing: that it will cost more to repair the unit than to buy a new one. Later, he finds out that the printer has a built-in chip that makes the printer stop functioning after it has counted a preset number of pages, in his case, 18,000 pages.

Like many others who have faced a similar situation, Marcos is a victim of planned obsolescence, “the secret mechanism at the heart of our consumer society,” the film says.

The story of planned obsolescence starts in the 1920s, when manufacturers started shortening the lives of products to increase consumer demand. The shining example of this was a conspiracy by a cartel of major bulb manufacturers – including Philips and Osram — to limit the lives of their products to 1,000 hours, even though they were capable of making them last twice as long.

To make its point, the film takes viewers to the world’s longest-burning light bulb in a fire station in Livermore, California, which has been burning continuously since 1901. On the Web, you can monitor the centennial light bulb made in Shelby, Ohio, and appreciate the irony that it has already outlasted two Web cams.

Unfortunately, the Livermore light bulb was the exception rather than the rule, and member companies of the cartel were forced to engineer a more fragile filament that would last no longer than 1,000 hours. The more replacement bulbs people bought, the better for the companies.

In the years that followed, the same principle was applied to the nylon used for stockings, which was re-engineered by chemists at Dupont to be more fragile than it originally was.

Advertising messages, too, were aimed at creating the desire among consumers to buy something a little newer, a little better and a little sooner than was necessary. The more dresses, cars and refrigerators they bought, the better for the manufacturers and the economy.

Such unbridled consumerism, however, has serious implications for the environment, not only in the advanced countries that consume the products, but also in poor nations that become the dumping ground for their electronic waste, the filmmakers say.

The Internet is allowing consumers to fight back, however. Brothers Van and Casey Neistat, for example, created a video on their own Web site called “iPod’s Dirty Secret” in 2003 that documented how the non-replaceable battery in Apple’s first-generation iPod was designed to last only 18 months, and that the only option after that was to buy a new unit. The film encouraged the filing of a class action suit that led to a settlement in which Apple set up a replacement service for batteries and offered an extended warranty for iPods.

Marcos, who starts the film, discovers free software on the Internet written by a Russian programmer that resets the page counter chip and extends the useful life of his inkjet printer.

Sadly, the Internet has also made some classic products obsolete—including the print version of the authoritative Encyclopaedia Britannica, which sold 120,000 sets at its peak in 1990.

The final hardcover 32-volume encyclopedia set, weighing 192 pounds, is available for sale at Britannica’s Web site for $1,395. Only 8,000 sets of the 2010 edition have been sold, and the remaining 4,000 have been stored in a warehouse until they are bought, the New York Times reports.

In contrast, about half a million households pay a $70 annual fee for a subscription to the online edition, which includes access to the full database of articles, videos, original documents and to the company’s mobile applications.

The company’s president, Jorge Cauz, acknowledges that some people will feel sad or nostalgic about the loss of the printed edition, but says the online version, which is constantly updated and includes multimedia content, is a much better tool.

He adds: “A printed encyclopedia is obsolete the minute that you print it.”

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