Artwork by Asaf Agranat, 2012.
Written by Ravid Rovner
It was a turning point in the history of resistance to economic injustice. The first to lose their jobs were textile artisans, replaced with the newly industrialized looms and frames. A small group of them assembled and started to invade the factories, destroy machinery and burn some factories down. The group named themselves “luddites”,after Ned Ludd, a young man who allegedly destroyed a stocking frame in an act of madness, about thirty years earlier. In a few months, the protest spread throughout England. Large groups of Luddites trained in the outskirts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire, and attacked at night: they burned factories down and smashed the machines. In some of the attacks more then a hundred men participated.
The British government responded firmly. It enacted the death penalty for machine sabotage, drafted the British army, sending soldiers for bitterly violent battles. It took approximately two years for the government to overpower the Luddites, during which more soldiers fought the Luddites than in the Napoleon war in Spain, dozens were injured and detained, 10 people were executed and 25 deported to Australia.
Some history books present Luddites as violent thugs opposing technological innovations. Edward P. Thompson, a historian of the period, claims otherwise. According to him, such a presentation is mistaken. In his book, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), he claims Luddites were not opposed to technology itself, but protested against the new economic policy, the “free market”. Luddites were angered by the rising unemployment, the enslaving of women and children forced to leave home for underpaid work, forcing families to move to industrial cities, the general lowering of the standard of living and the increased mortality. If Thompson is right, the protest was the first organized opposition to capitalism, the first time the working class expressed a political voice. This probably was the first time that a government used its power to protect the economic system. It protected the interests of factory owners, and showed no concern for those of the fired artisans. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
During the past 201 years, not much of the Luddites story, at least as inspiration protest, has remained. Today, “Luddite” serves as a nickname for someone who opposes technological innovations, often uttered disparagingly, indicating a kind of ridiculous resistance, with a non-effective effect and a close expiration date. Except for a few successors, American contemporary opponents of technology innovations, who call themselves neo-Luddites, we gave up a long time ago: Industry progresses rapidly and increasingly continues to produce low quality objects for an over-saturated object-culture, like salty industrial popcorn in an enormous Chinese microwave.
This product inflation is a clear strategy of late capitalism, in evidence for the last seventy years or so. This type of capitalism is characterized by the rising power of global corporations and a culture of increased consumption. Critics from the left condemn it, pointing out incremental increases in poverty and inequality and propose socialist alternatives. The criticism is acute. It pinpoints the destructive relationship between money and power, removes dust from the concept of justice and reminds us that it could different. But unfortunately, except for some minor “cosmetic” legislation repairs here and there, it often fails to achieve significant results. It seems that the current economy is too powerful, and is here to stay. Still, a new approach to resistance is emerging, which is of a very different kind. To understand this we must have a look into a “deeper” layer from which capitalism draws its daily power. I mean the product layer.
Today, leading companies are selling us products with “built-in-obsolescence”. It is an industry-accepted professional term that describes a manufacturer’s strategy of predesigning a product so that it stops functioning after a specified period of time, in order to make the customer purchase a new one instead. In other words, it is a key method for encouraging consumption.
There are two methods to create a built-in-obsolescence, according to the culture critic Vance Packard. In his book from 1960, The Waste Makers, he named one of them “obsolescence-of-function”, which practically means that the product stops functioning after a pre-calculated amount of time. One way to do this is to use poor quality materials, e.g. in an electric stove, low quality “stainless steel” rusts gradually, until one has to throw away the device, even if the heater still works. A second way is to prevent customers or even skilled professionals from reaching the internal electronic components and fixing them, e.g., by assembling to parts of a plastic hair dryer with adhesives instead of screws. Sometimes electronic components installed on the device will be of low quality or loosely assembled, promising dysfunctionality after some movements. A mark of an “expiration date”, which usually lacks substantial justification, is another reason to throw away the device. As parents know full well, the expiration date is to be found on nearly everything they buy, from pacifiers to activity mats and car seats. This “expiration date” will ensure that parents do not keep the product for their next child or do not pass it on to another. A third way is comparing the price of repairing to that of buying a new product, so fixing, even if possible, if not economical. Obsolescence-of-function ensures that the client will have no alternative but to throw away the entire product.
IKEA – the world’s most popular network home furnishing, boasting fine design products at a low price – champions obsolescence-of-function. Their products looks durable on display, but a considerable number of them do not last more than one or two years. Unfortunately, it is not this company’s only “design sin”. A substantial portion of its products are copied from designers, especially Europeans, one by one.
Even Apple, who’s excellent design is a continuous mythology happening in the present, designs for built-in-obsolescence. How else is it possible to explain the world’s best computer company designs battery chargers with a shorter lifespan than the computers it charges?
A second method to create “built-in obsolescence” belongs to the field of psychology, and is called by Packard “obsolescence-of-desirability”. This strategy seeks to create the feeling that a product purchased just recently is out of fashion. This limitation will make the client stop using the product and discard it, even if it is working properly. To bring about this sophisticated obsolescence, design divisions work together in orchestral cooperation with marketing divisions, to create new styles rapidly. Here too Apple “shines”. It releases a new product every year, even if there is no real reason – a technological innovation or change of materials – and together with strong media “hype” it makes sure its customers will desire to “upgrade”. With obsolescence-of-desirability the term “season” reaches from clothing to housewares. There is nothing seasonal in a dish, until it comes to encouraging consumption.
Therefore, those who oppose “consumer culture” should make clear distinctions: Sometimes manufacturers give their customers no choice – the product does not work. Sometimes, they use sophisticated psychological manipulations. Perhaps one day the warrior-director Michael Moore will prove that considerable parts of the propaganda campaign against “consumerism” are in fact a U.S. government conspiracy designed to hide the real problem: manufacturers’ policies making Capitalism grotesque. Of course, this brief description falls short of describing the devastating effects built-in obsolescence has on the environment: more products means increased consumption of fossil fuel for production and transport, resulting in pollution of air, soil and water.
If it’s so obvious, why do the governments not banish this strategy? Answer: because it is good for them. The International Comparative index of the level of development of countries, GDP (Gross Domestic Product), is a term expressing the total final goods and services produced in a given year within a nation’s economy. The term includes the income of foreign production factors by their activities within the country. GDP measures the economy’s ability to produce. In a simple language: the more production and consumption there is, the more the increase in the country’s value. Clearly then, built-in-obsolescence is a strategy of manufacturers supported by governments. It “drives the wheels of the economy” and thus increases the measured value of one country in relation to others.
If this discussion appears to be dealing with a low-level or an esoteric practice of capitalism, since it is just about design, and not about government legislation, the presentation of an alternative theory or an ethical debate, it is not. This design strategy sneaks capitalism in through the back door. Even if countries will increase GDP in other ways, it will be difficult to enact laws to stop manufacturers from producing products with built-in obsolescence. Not all designing and manufacturing methods are traceable, and the manufacturers are experts in what is not. This strategy hides the real agenda of the drivers of the economy – “Produce more! Buy more!” – under the plastic cover of your blender.
The New Revolution
I want to suggest that FIXPERTS, as a Non-Profit Organization requesting designers to be “experts” in repair or improving products for people who can’t do it themselves, is a new form of resisting the dominant design strategy that might be effective. The organization is one of a series of similar initiatives in recent years in:
IFIXIT is a website which offers tutorials for repairing electronic devices,from a camera to a car. If you do not find a solution to the malfunctioning device, you can ask for advice on the website, and someone might help you solve it. You can also help others.
REPAIR CAFE is an American organization which conducts live sessions of repairing all types of products, and offers help setting up branches of similar groups nationwide.
COLLECTIVE NYC FIXERS is an organization whose declared purpose is to fight built-in-obsolescence. Members meet once a month and call people to bring their broken products for repair.
Here are some especially interesting points for the FIXPERTS manifest:
3) Give your products a longer life. If we double the life of our posessions, we halve what goes into landfill.
4) Fixing means freedom and independence. As a fixer, you don’t need to worry about wear and tear. Nothing stays new, so forget perfection.
5) Resist trends and needless upgrades. They fuel our throwaway culture.
6) Don’t let companies treat you as a passive consumer. Every time we spend money, we vote for the kinds of products we want to see succeed. Buy products that can be repaired.
FIXPERTS, together with organizations similar to it, offers an opportunity to reject the automatic acceptance of the dominant paradigm, together with all the problems it creates. FIXPERTS’ invocation is particularly interesting because it explicitly addresses designers. As we have seen, in the logic of late capitalism, designers are a necessary element in enhancing consumption. Without them, there is no ability to make desirable products obsolete during limited amount of time, since both the physical and the psychological aspects of it are based on their work. FIXPERTS’ call is therefore revolutionary. They ask those who were trained into this paradigm to resist it materially: instead of designing short-life-span products, taking a role of product-doctors extending and bettering products’ life. This means resisting the logic of the current economic system.
Actually, FIXPERTS is a kind of reverse Luddism. The Luddites were professionals protesting against early capitalism by destroying machines; FIXPERTS are professionals protesting against late capitalism by repairing products. Both of these grassroots movements refuse to cooperate with the existing economic order. Although FIXPERTS as well as Luddites seem to have no pretensions to replace the economic model with another, it seems that their actions might undermine the solid foundations of the economy, with a modus of subversive activity.
More important than similarities, are the differences between the two movements: the textile workers in early industrial revolution were made redundant by the machines that replaced them. Contemporary designers, however, understand that machines can’t replace them – artificial intelligence that can translate human volitions and desires into three dimensional objects, has not yet invented by science. Consumer revolution alone will not be able to overcome the system, partly because many of the largest companies’ products are manufactured with built-in-obsolescence, and do not leave the customer a better alternative for a purchase, and because it is usually not possible to distinguish between products that have built-in-obsolescence from those that don’t. Designers realize that they are the only ones who can break the paradigm of the inherent limitations and uproot increased consumption.
Another difference is the motivation of the movements. Luddite opposition to capitalism resulted from the destruction of social and family life. These issues are not of interest to the FIXPERTS, who grow up into a honey-world of bourgeois comfort. What bothers them is the destruction of the planet, increased utilization of renewable resources and the rising pollution causing gradual extinction of life on Earth.
The Luddites failed decisively. The FIXPERTS might have a brighter future: as built-in-obsolescence is difficult to locate and stop, so it is impossible to prohibit fixing. There’s nothing violent in it, and it does not require more than the will of a designer to take part in the idea and its execution. Maybe that’s why FIXPERTS do not declare themselves revolutionaries. Over 201 years capitalism has gradually become much more sophisticated, much quieter and well hidden in the mechanisms of production and consumption. So must be the revolution.
Packard, Vance; The waste makers. Brooklyn: Ig Pub (2011 )
Thompson, E. P.; The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, (1980 )
Ravid Rovner is a design researcher specializing in the history of design concepts, in design methodology, in rhizomatic mind mapping and in object poetry. She was born in Israel and lives in Tel-Aviv. She has a BA in industrial design from Holon Institute of Technology and a MA in the philosophy of design from Tel-Aviv University, with a thesis entitled “Designing the World: Rethinking the Nature-Culture Dualism”. Rovner lectures on design and history of design concepts, design in the information age, gender design and sustainable design at three major national univeristies, Bezalel Academy, Holon Instittue of Technology and Shenkar – Engineering. Design. Art.