During the major blizzard in February (dubbed Nemo), my digital camera stopped working. When I turned it on, the lens would extend, then retract; it would do this a few times and then give a error message to turn it off and back on again. This did not solve the problem, so I began wondering if I could get it repaired, or if I would have to replace it. This repair-or-replace question made me think of a timeline I had seen, which I will describe:
Physical description: It was a black-and-white timeline (though it could originally have been in color); I had it on an 8.5×11″ paper, which I had to blow up onto multiple pages in order to see all the small print properly.
Content: I’m not sure what the earliest year represented was, but the timeline extended through the present and into the future. It showed when repair stopped being a viable option for everyday objects like clothes, shoes, toasters, and radios; when built-in obsolescence, or planned obsolescence, made it cheaper to buy a new item to replace the old one, or simply impossible to repair the old item.
I wanted to find this timeline again. I started with a Google search, using a variety of keywords (repair, replace, timeline, obsolescence/obsolete, chart, technology, etc.), and then switched to a Google image search. I couldn’t find it, so I looked through my grad school notebooks, thinking maybe it had been a handout from one of my classes. It wasn’t there, so I reached out to grad school friends and professors, none of whom specifically remembered what I was trying to describe (though some said it sounded cool), or could help me find it.
Next, I reached out to the Swiss Army Librarian, an ace reference librarian in Chelmsford, MA. He spent a generous amount of time helping me try to dig up the timeline, consulting print and online materials, but we still haven’t found it. However, we found a number of other cool resources along the way:
- the Consumer Reports Repair or Replace Timeline - access to the timeline itself requires a subscription to CR, but you may well have access through your local public library, as many libraries purchase subscriptions. (If you happen to live in Arlington, MA, click here.)
- an article from The Economist by Tim Hindle called “Planned Obsolesence” from March 23, 2009
- the book Made to Break: technology and obsolescence in America by Giles Slade, which didn’t have the timeline I was thinking of, but it makes interesting reading. (It will probably make you angry.)
- a very long piece from Adbusters by Micah White called “Consumer Society is Made to Break” from October 20, 2008, which includes a clip of (and link to) a short film called The Story of Stuff, and a reproduction of Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” which contains the following rather incendiary proposal:
“I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”
For those who are now fascinated and/or infuriated by the whole concept planned obsolescence thing: if you research further and find that chart, please let me know!