Shelters From Planned Obsolescence

Builds Upon: Living On A Keynesian Playground

Many an old aphorism tells us that human desire is limitless.
Yet not so many tell us that human imagination is quite limited.

Humans can desire only what they already know of or are capable of imagining.
Thus kings in ancient times never had any desire for personal computers or i-pads.

Markets are like a genie that grants the wishes of a collective—anything that people want tends to manifest—but like a typical Arabian Nights style narrative, the moral of the story is the banality and short-sightedness of the wish-maker.

Somehow, we never see the ‘experts’ factor in shortcomings in human knowledge and imagination when they discuss the workings of capitalism. The theoretical customer seems almost like a Laplace’s demon with perfect knowledge of the universe.

In real life, imperfect consumer knowledge and foresight plus the influence of emotion makes planned obsolescence a more lucrative strategy than making high quality merchandise.
Furthermore, planned obsolescence is in part merchants’ response to increasing abundance. It is just one of many mechanisms that reinforce artificial scarcity.
Consumers, especially the millions living from paycheck to paycheck, buy the cheapest products available only to have them break in a short while. Over years, they actually end up paying more than if they had invested in a single high quality item.
This tactic works brilliantly for the sellers because most people do not have the critical thinking ability, requisite curiosity, or knowledge outside their narrow specialty to understand how they are actually being ripped off in the long term.

Ironically, quality merchandise that won’t break has become a rarity. Most products we find at major retailers have devolved into junk as consumer expectations have steadily eroded over the decades.
If the parents could be sold a toaster that broke after 8 years, perhaps their kids could be induced to buy a cheap toaster that breaks in 4 years…and so on. Now after several generations have grown up in our modern capitalism we see the market in its present state with the process of decay actually accelerating.

If we know the nature of the wish-maker we can predict the nature of the product. Thus we can predict that we will get ripped off if we shop in the same venues frequented by ignorant and apathetic consumers.

How do we shelter ourselves, then, from the nightmare market wished into existence by the tyrannical masses?

Why not find and follow those wish-makers who have a stake in getting the highest quality merchandise possible?
For instance, businesses that are very much motivated to look out for their bottom line:

Exhibit 1
Any more, a pair of jeans wears out very quickly. In particular, I notice that it’s usually the knees that give out, often within just a few months. Even sooner if there’s any actual physical work or rough handling.
Yet we still buy them just because we have a cultural memory of jeans as durable work clothing and all purpose casual wear. We keep coming back to get ripped off because we’re unthinkingly following the crowd.

Meanwhile, work clothing stores sell high quality pairs of pants that can absorb years of constant abuse. The knees are actually reinforced with an entire extra layer of thick fabric.
I think someday, I may well choose Dickies over Dockers and although unfashionable, it will be my fashion statement.

Exhibit 2
Most kitchen appliances any more break like cheap toys, even if the consumer buys a shiny tin-plated version of the same garbage that costs 25-50% more.
The only real solution: Find out what blenders, toasters, and mixers restaurants are using.
For in our present world, if it’s not ‘industrial grade’ it’s probably not worth buying.

Or, one might plug leaks by only keeping the most useful appliances. After all, couldn’t one toast a piece of bread on a stove or in an oven? In your average home how often does one actually need an electric mixer?
To be worthwhile each additional appliance must not add to the hundreds of financial thumbtacks of Damocles hanging over one’s head.

Exhibit 3
As if by royal decree, schools and instructors create a monopoly for text book companies. Not only are prices exorbitant, the publishers keep their cash cow alive by frequently ‘revising’ their books. ‘Revision’ of course mostly consists of changing the page numbers, the order of the chapters, and the assignable homework problems. Thus, everyone has to buy each new edition and discard the previous one.

Given absolute power, these companies create as much artificial obsolescence as they can. So advanced is the decay of this market, that all pretence has been dropped and the vendors overtly, ruthlessly, and arbitrarily milk their precious captive consumers.

As quality merchandise becomes less available in the wider market, we can expect an increasing resemblance to the monopolistic text book industry.

Conclusion:
For those who sing praise unto capitalism, the principle of planned obsolescence invites us to reflect on one of the most glaring paradoxes of free markets.

The perfect product that never breaks puts its manufacturer out of business.

This conundrum shows us that capitalism alone cannot be a foundation for a society that works in the best common interest.

A better society clearly must be animated by some kind of higher legitimacy and intrinsic defining purpose that encourages every item to be made in the best possible way.
We’re often told that modern production is very efficient. Yet needless waste on a mass scale is a defining trait of our system.
Surely the enlightened society is one that makes every single effort, whether by worker or machine count for as much as possible—not to perpetuate slavery of the masses but to open up increasing amounts of leisure time and emancipate the human mind.

Final Note: I would invite readers to contribute their ideas for Obsolescence Shelters in the comments section.

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13 responses to “Shelters From Planned Obsolescence

  1. I will probably eventually start a blog of my own, however I am behind on nearly every one of my personal projects and they come first.

    The main reason I remain so bullish on the future of the USA versus any other country is how many people are working on this artificial scarcity problem as we speak.

    Some linkage on work that’s being done:

    Video on FabLabs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCXlJ36x-q0&feature=youtu.be

    3D printing software: http://www.mallyable.com/

    3D design experimentation software: http://www.solidthinking.com/st8FeaturesStart.aspx

    MITx Announcement (US universities are pioneering new ways of educating people outside of the traditional structure at a lower cost, or free altogether): http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/mitx-education-initiative-1219.html

    Drone auto pilot using Arduino (“Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.”) http://www.diydrones.com/profiles/blogs/apm-2-0-release

    “MiiU is the resilient community wiki. A resilient community is a place that produces most of what it needs locally and connects virtually for everything else. That means it is nearly immune to many of the negative effects of disasters and global breakdowns.”
    http://www.miiu.org/wiki/Main_Page

    Urban Evolution: “We are a loose group of community minded thinkers brainstorming the evolution of living spaces through urban farming, bioremediation, open infrastructure, and appropriate technology.”
    (I contributed some ideas/books to this forum for awhile, and sent ideas/material to Justin Boland. The discussion died out after awhile as they were a bit too far ahead of the curve and couldn’t spark enough discussion)
    http://urbanevolution.org/thinktank/

    Another “hardcore” DIY food resource : http://www.punkdomestics.com/

    Sustainable economies law center (including info on fund raising): http://www.theselc.org/

    Factor E Farm – Building tools for replicable, open source, post-scarcity resilient communities: http://blog.opensourceecology.org/

    Good John Robb posts (he’s been on a roll recently):

    “There’s a revolution going on in biotech. The market for biotech is booming (from drugs to products) and it’s getting much less expensive to do. How much less expensive? The cost of the equipment needed to build a functional lab has dropped to something an individual can afford to put in their basement. ”
    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/12/resilient-community-diy-biotech-.html

    “In this video, Marcin used Kicksarter to ask for $40,000 in support of his global village construction set project. Fortunately, he was successful and raised over $63,000.

    If you haven’t heard of it before, the construction set project is a do-it-yourself lab/facility based on Marcin’s farm in Mayesville Missouri. The lab/facility is developing open source designs for many commonly used industrial, construction, and farming tools (from a tractor to a brick maker to hydraulic system). Basically, this kit is supposed to make it easier to bootstrap resilient community. How do they plan to finance themselves long term? They plan to eventually make money by selling finished tools to people that don’t want to construct them DIY (lots of businesses operate this way).”
    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/12/is-this-bootstrap-funding-for-a-resilient-community.html

    “Here’s Britta. She just turned a part time hobby designing a kinda cool, slightly funky, product into a full time job: she just sold (as of this writing) $157,000 worth of product in the last couple of weeks.

    How did she do it? Really simple. Here are the simple steps to building a venture like this: ”
    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2011/12/resilient-income-how-to-build-and-open-source-venture-before-you-get-fired.html

    “Artificial intelligence is not made from scratch in a lab, rather, it’s a bootstrap that leverages what has already been developed in the biological world. Existing, biological intelligence is first modeled and then replicated in hardware/software combos (as we see in the picture to the right, where the Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne has produced a model of the upper levels of a rat’s brain). ”
    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2008/03/rats-and-supere.html

  2. My other comment is probably stuck in spam/moderation because of the URLs.

    A big problem people are dealing with right now is the cost of gas and auto fatalities. We already know that the auto companies (that we bailed out) have all the reason in the world not to innovate, even if it means saving millions (!) of lives that traffic accidents cut short.

    We use the 3D fab process to build a resilient car. The same principles that are behind the building of open source tractors and other farm equipment can be scaled up (3 wheel cars are usually used because there are so many regulations on 4 wheel vehicles). We’ve had cars that could get several hundred Miles Per Gallon that are held back because of the system of artifical scarcity:

    www dot autos dot ca/auto-brands/feature-vw-1-litre-car

    “A few years ago, Volkswagen took on a task that many people thought was impossible: they decided to develop a fuel-efficient, road-going compact car that could achieve an average fuel consumption of just 3 litres per 100 km (94 mpg). Not only did Volkswagen achieve this milestone in 1999, but they had an even larger goal in mind: an ultra fuel-efficient car with a super stingy fuel consumption rating of just 1 litre per 100 kilometres (282 mpg).”

    Notice that this is very different from the goofy concept car styles we usually see. I believe we can also, over time, improve the relative safety of the cars. The same open source process that makes UNIX more secure than windows can be applied to car manufacturing.

  3. On the subject of exhibit 2, consumer electronics, Karl Derringer mentions that most of the equipment sold in the US have faulty capacitors so that they can cycle through new models. In many cases the fault lies in the power supply, the rest of the device is functional:

    “These known-defective components are found in virtually everything electronic-related. Nearly all electronic devices have electrolytic capacitors in them – the purpose of these devices is to smooth electrical currents, much like a shock absorber does in a car. Without them working properly circuits either don’t work at all or become unstable.

    If you’ve ever heard a “snapping” noise from some piece of electronic equipment, shortly before or concurrently with it ceasing to work, you almost certainly have run into one of these known-defective components.

    Yet despite knowledge of the fact that these things are in literally everything – phones, computer board, power supplies, TVs, monitors and other products – there has been no recall that I know of issued.
    market-ticker dot org/cgi-ticker/akcs-www?post=164712&ord=1927444

    And here is he again bitching about them:

    “These are not accidents or “ordinary wear and tear” failures.

    You are being screwed, America, by manufacturers who produced products with defective components that are necessary for both the function and safety of the devices you’re using.

    These components will fail, your consumer electronics will stop working long before they should.

    This is not about warranties. These capacitors are not merchantable. They are unfit for any purpose, as they are known to be defective and as such it is known that they will fail, destroying your device.

    It is as if these products have a built-in time bomb ala “Mission Impossible”, that just happens to go off shortly after your warranty expires.”

    market-ticker dot org/akcs-www?singlepost=2139475

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  5. On a side note, I think we’re a lot better off than Europe is recovery wise.

    The Euro-zone is the largest economy in the world, largest provider of credit and it’s leveraged to 30 times it’s balance sheet. Their bureaucracy is just as bad if not very much worse than the US in many ways. Germany is in the drivers seat right now and they have always loved a strong top-down approach, which doesn’t fit with the incentive system created by the technology. But then they’ve never really been about being the best, they care too much about safety for that.

    The whole European Unity ploy is a bigger sham than American Patriotism, no one is buying into it and most of the countries in it are experiencing a resurgence in populist/nationalist politics. They keep bringing in more of the corrupt loser states (and their bills) and no one wants that headache (Greece-Portugal-Italy-Spain). Austerity isn’t an option, change isn’t an option, they’ll just try to ride out the party and bank off their pension.

    Most of the 21st century tech we’re seeing is being developed and applied in the US or in some developing markets. The idea of “Resilient” is mainly being applied to emission control and climate change friendly technology in Europe.

    • I’ve been having fun surfing through all the links you’ve provided here, Eric. Thanks for your contributions.

      And for the latest round of IMF banners… :)

      As a kid I would stumble on this box of dusty books out in the garage left over from the arab oil embargo years.
      Books about adding solar panels or how to build houses below ground level.
      It seems genuine public interest faded when it became clear the spice would be flowing without further interruptions.
      Still, I’ve often wondered at the abruptness of the collective’s return to amnesia.
      And now that there’s a resurgence I’m hoping that it doesn’t totally lose momentum just as before.

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  7. Part of the reason is solar has recently had some technological breakthroughs in efficiency, along with some potential ones on the horizon. But yeah, it was low on the priority list compared to the status quo.

    You’re welcome for the banners ;) the latest banners look a little more polished and are getting 1.5-4x the CTR of the older standard ones. I’m refining my technique without having to worry about the $$$ outcome :P
    I’m rather proud of these two in particular:
    http://imgur.com/a/x4xo0

  8. Good share zhai2nan2, thanks.

    Few more things on the subject of open source transportation (For various reasons, it’s easier to focus on projects than communities, the two main issues seem to be trust and politics. People change, the collective and individual needs of that group change…):

    P2P Project of the Day: the Local Motors XC2V (marine assualt vehicle)
    http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/p2p-project-of-the-day-the-local-motors-xc2v/2012/01/15

    P2P Project of the Day: StreetScooter, the open-source electric car, will be on Germany’s streets in 2013
    http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/p2p-project-of-the-day-streetscooter-the-open-source-electric-car-will-be-on-germanys-streets-in-2013/2012/01/14

    OPEN SOURCE AUTOMOBILES
    http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2009/12/open-source-automobiles.html

  9. Have a look at the spike of drug shortage reports (it’s not just cancer drugs):
    http://www.google.com/trends/?q=drug+shortage

    http://www.shreveporttimes.com/article/20120204/LIVING02/202040304/Drug-shortages-cut-deep-across-nation?odyssey=mod%7Cnewswell%7Ctext%7CFRONTPAGE%7Cs
    “The FDA reports that among many reasons, 43 percent of shortages stem from below-standard drug manufacturing facilities. Numerous FDA accounts describe drugs coming out of manufacturing plants contaminated with microbes, impurities, bits of metal and rust and other particulates.

    “If you read the FDA inspections of these plants, basically it’s scary,” said Erin Fox, pharmacist and manager of the Drug Information Service at University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics. “It’s crumbling buildings with mold on the walls, rust on the equipment. It doesn’t seem like what you would think a factory in the U.S. would look like.””

    Change the distribution model, fix the problem.

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