Programmed Obsolescence

Blog No. 5.

“Grey days are clear days, but out of context.”

Albert Espinosa

Most people believe that the Industrial Revolution started when James Watt invented the steam engine in the 18th century. Actually, the first patent for a modern steam engine was registered by the Spaniard Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont in 1606, but the original invention must be attributed to Heron of Alexandria in the 1st century CE., who called it Aeolipile. Others argue that the defining moment of the Industrial Revolution is Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line, but connoisseurs know that the Industrial Revolution was indeed consolidated on December 23, 1924 in Geneva, Switzerland.

On that day before Christmas Eve, a group of prominent international businessmen gathered in Geneva for a meeting that would change the world. The high representatives of all the main manufacturers of incandescent bulbs in the world attended. At that meeting were Philips from the Netherlands, Osram from Germany, the Compagnie des Lampes from France, Lámparas “Z” from Spain, the Hungarian Tungsram company, the Associated Electrical Industries from Great Britain, the Japanese Tokyo Electric, and General Electric from The United States, which was represented by its British subsidiary, General Electric International and by the Grupo Ultramar, which consisted of its subsidiaries in Brazil, China and Mexico. Many things were decided in that meeting -some of them would be criminal today- but the most important one was the creation of the concept of programmed obsolescence, that is: manufacturing products so that they only last or serve for a certain time, after which the user must discard them and buy new ones.

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? One. But the lightbulb must want to change. ”

Lightbulb jokes.

In the city of Livermore in California, United States, there is an incandescent bulb produced by the Shelby Electric company in 1901, which 119 years later is still on! And it is still burning, because it was manufactured before the concept of programmed obsolescence, therefore, it was manufactured to last a lifetime and not a thousand hours as promised – as a big thing – since 1925 by the «industrial psychiatrists» of the Light Bulbs Cartel.

But there is no reason to be mad at light bulbs, when this is a universal practice of the industrial or capitalist era. Just a couple of years ago, users of the iPhone 6 began to feel the frustration that the cell phone was becoming increasingly slow, so, users proceeded – after a couple of times when we seriously considered throwing it out the window – to buy the iPhone 7 or 8 -which had already been released- since the iPhone 6 was no longer working. But then, a group of Apple users filed a lawsuit against Apple, pointing out that the device had no major problem but a software modification, because, in its last iOS update, Apple had entered a computer code which made the mobile to slow down at a certain point of battery charge. Apple claimed that they did this to make the battery perform better, even so us, the victims – I changed my iPhone 6 – believe they did it to sell their new generation of iPhones. So this is post-programmed obsolescence.

I must say that, after Apple recognized its error and I changed the iPhone 6 battery, my phone is still in use by my mother-in-law, who inherited it from my daughter, whom I gave it to after buying an iPhone 8 for me!

Nor can we be hypocritical and accuse the big industry of having invented a concept of production that forces us to discard goods and replace them with new ones, when we, as a society – at least the western world – have also been doing this with people for several decades.

When the idea of the Welfare State -Bismark’s Wohlfahrtsstaat– typical of the transition from agricultural to industrial societies, emerged in the 19th century, the concept of social security also arose. Among these benign and revolutionary ideas, retirement is considered as a moment at the end of life, in which one stops working to further enjoy a quiet old age. Old age that was established at sixty years old, for a life expectancy -of those who reached sixty- of a couple of more years. However, let us take into account that the life expectancy in Europe and America on the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century, was forty to fifty years.

Thanks to advances in health, nutrition and medicine, life expectancy today in most parts of the world, reaches between seventy to eighty years, and for generations X, Y and Z, projections for lifespan are between ninety to one hundred years. Scientists today – who concur with Kabbalah’s millennial wisdom- assert that the planned obsolescence of the human body is really one hundred and twenty years. Daringly, others such as those at Singularity University in California, speak of immortality – although they refer to the immortality of consciousness and not necessarily that of the human body – and Yuval Noah Harari, in his Homo Deus work, refers to these possibilities as well, but by replacing organs and through other technological procedures.

«Die young … as late as possible»

Chinese proverb

As a result of health changes and also of the technological revolution, people reaching the so-called «third age» – my father called it «second childhood» – are vigorous people in body and mind, who also handle communication technology with skill and whom, above all, have accumulated experience of several decades, which is very useful when sailing in uncharted waters.

In the book «Blink» (Intuitive Intelligence), Malcolm Gladwell recounts the Getty Museum’s experience, when they bought a monumental and expensive Egyptian sculpture, for which they built a new wing at the museum in order to exhibit it. After months of evaluation and negotiation, the museum team acquired the piece for eleven million dollars and decided to invite the world’s greatest expert on Egyptian sculptures of that period, to show him their acquisition. They did a whole choreography to take the expert to the basement where they kept it; so, at the climatic moment when they removed the sheet cover with which they kept it hidden: «Oops … it’s a fake,» said the expert as soon as he saw it. The hosts first thought he was joking, then became very angry at the expert’s insistence that it was a fake. They aggressively asked him how he could say it was a fake and his answer was: «I just know.» Certainly, the Getty Museum did not accept this criterion and invited the world’s second most renown expert in the field – without telling her anything about the situation with the previous expert – and repeated the ceremony. She asked, «And how much did you pay for this?» They told her: “Eleven million dollars” and she just said, «Ouch.» When asked why the «Ouch» she said: «Because it is a fake.» Finally, a detective investigation was carried out, and it proved the experts right. The entire thesis of the book is about situations like these, and how and where expert knowledge is forged.

Now that we are living in a global hiatus, where we become aware of our impact on the planet, John Elkington’s proposal to change the analysis of a company’s balance sheet from one-dimensional to three-dimensional results is strengthened. Elkington talks about 3P: Profit, People, Planet; this vision, which will become mainstream, will shift us to reject the disposable – because of being both a pollutant and inefficient – and to favor the durable or, at least, the recyclable.

At a time when companies and institutions are rethinking the way they work, their purpose or raison d’être, firing or offering early retirements to the most experienced personnel, is nonsense and a waste. On the other hand, not attracting this type of available personnel to strengthen the company or institution itself, is also a great lack of vision, especially when, thanks to teleworking and the new emerging forms of employment, a combination of youth and experience with short or part-time hours, consultancies and other modalities, could allow more than one company to take advantage of this knowledge, experience and vigor, from people who are in their most productive years, at a cost very similar to the current one. Not for nothing is it said that the fifties are the new thirties and the sixties are the new forties.

Increasingly, we see how society and people find solutions to their needs without the State’s involvement. People are turning their backs on the State and solving -through apps and networks- things that previously would have required some authority involved. However, there are still things for which the authority and strength of the State is required and one of them is to abolish programmed obsolescence; A practice that, in today’s world, must be outlawed, just as price fixing, market splitting and other practices that, in recent years, have also been banned since that December 23, 1924 in Geneva, Switzerland.

But the abolition of planned obsolescence should not be limited to products, it should also be banned towards people; and thus add the energies, talent and expertise of millions of still young third agers who, in times of perplexity, can put in context those days that seem gray.

Milton Cohen-Henríquez Sasso

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