Planned Obsolescence

The concept of “planned obsolescence” \citep{kenton19} has been in the United States since at least the 1920s, when General Motors introduced a new production and marketing strategy. GM started to design and construct new models for just a single year, so last year’s cars seemed to be out of date. The strategy worked and appeared in other sectors as well. If a product is old-fashioned, or does not work well after a certain period, the consumer seeks new items. Built-in obsolescence can be implemented through two different mechanisms. First, a new, superior model appears and people should be convinced by advertisements to buy the new model. Second, the product is intentionally designed to be nonfunctional within a planned time period. In both cases, consumers prefer the next generation of products to the older ones.

The main social reason that planned obsolescence worked was the rapid emergence of a strong middle class during the 1950s, which is sometimes called the Decade of Prosperity. The purchasing power of the median American family grew by 30% during that time \cite{shmoop}. Progress in science and technology, combined with the availability of cheap oils from U.S. wells were the driving force of the increase in industrial productivity. Europe and Asia were still recovering from World War II, so America did not have peer competitors. People who lived in poverty during the Great Depression and World War II were very motivated to buy, and suddenly they were able to purchase bigger cars, larger houses, and better and longer educations. In addition, disposable goods appeared, and people had the financial means to replace products.

From the Centennial Light to the not-so-long-lived bulbs

Commercially viable light bulbs were invented by Thomas Edison (1847-1931). In the first three decades after their invention, carbon filaments were used. The Centennial Light is the world’s longest-lasting light bulb—it has been burning since June $1901$ and is located in Livermore, California. It is a hand-blown, carbon-filament light bulb. While the bulb has been “off” several times, generally due to human intervention, it has never ceased to be functioning. Since bulbs produced later had a much shorter life duration than that of the Centennial Light, they are frequently referred to as a paradigmatic example of planned obsolescence.

Phoebus cartel

The Phoebus cartel was formed in $1924$ to manage and control the design and engineering of shorter-lived lightbulbs. At that time, more and more often, tungsten filaments were adopted. An excellent paper\citep{krajewski14} describes the history of the \emph{grand lightbulb conspiracy}. The goal of the bulb industrialists was a systematic reduction in the capacity of lightbulbs from $1,500-2,000$ hours of functionality to $1,000$. It is interesting to see that the researchers had to find conditions that would \emph{reliably} provide the reduced life duration. Phoebus was a global cartel, including General Electric and Tokyo Electric alongside the big European companies, such as Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, the Hungarian Tungsram, and the British Associated Electrical Industries. While the cartel managed to keep the artificially elevated prices for a while, competitors did emerge to provide cheaper, often lower-quality goods. Specifically, while Tokyo Electric was a member of the cartel, small, family-owned Japanese workshops produced almost hand-made, cheap bulbs, mainly for the international market. The cheap bulbs were not necessarily financially favorable, since the low price was overcompensated for by increased current consumption. As World War II started, the coordination necessary to keep the cartel alive was impossible, and the first global agreement to implement global planned obsolescence was nullified in 1940.

Planned obsolescence is with us, with no intention to leave

Over the course of three decades, I (P) have had about eight to ten digital notebooks and laptops. In most cases, I decided to change devices when the cost of repair was not too far from that of buying a new, more technologically advanced model. I believe I still have at least four of the old devices, so technically they don’t contribute to e-waste. Moore’s law says that transistor count will double every $24$ months, so generally, the new laptop represented a higher technical level. I have been living in the world of the Linux operating systems, now in the Ubuntu $20.04$ version. While I don’t believe the laptops were planned to have a limited reliability, the reality is that I am almost sure the Reader’s experience is not very different from my own. (Two weeks after I wrote this paragraph, I returned to it to complain that the smartwatch I use to track and improve my fitness suddenly died after just 18 months of use.)

The surprising reality: Unrepairable laptops and smartphones are one symptom of the throw-away society in which we live. It is still somewhat surprising that the business model—based on batteries that users cannot replace—worked. We consumers could not resist buying these very new type of gadgets, even though we were supposed to throw out the whole device when the battery was gone. Not only do batteries die out, but we have also learned that sometimes things like operating systems or apps can suddenly no longer be upgraded.

With some mixed feelings, we are inclining to agree with opinions \citep{hadhazy16} that the throw-away society has beneficial aspects as well.

A balanced view

First, the rapid turnover of goods correlates with the creation of jobs. Second, there is a huge increase in the availability of relatively cheap goods for many people, not only in wealthy countries but in developing countries too. While we cannot deny that more people have had a better quality of life as a result of our consumer model than at any other time in history, it is also responsible for global warming and toxic waste.

Throw-away culture generates huge amounts of waste. As environmental consciousness continues to expand, consumer goods might become less disposable. Google initiated \textbf{Project Ara}, for developing a modular smartphone device that lets you easily swap out components that are either broken or in need of an upgrade, but the company canceled the project a few years later.

As we throw away machines and devices, since we feel that they are out of date, the result is a huge mountain of e-waste. It is worth to see the numbers published by The Global E-waste Monitor 2020\citep{forti20}:

“In 2019, the world generated a striking 53.6 [metro tones] of e-waste, an average of 7.3 [kg] per capita. The global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 [Mt] since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 [Mt] by 2030—almost doubling in only 16 years. The growing amount Electrical and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few repair options. Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 [Mt], followed by the Americas (13.1 [Mt]) and Europe (12 [Mt]), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 [Mt] and 0.7 [Mt], respectively. Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita, with 16.2 [kg] per capita. Oceania was second (16.1 [kg] per capita), followed by the Americas (13.3 [kg] per capita), while Asia and Africa generated just 5.6 and 2.5 [kg] per capita, respectively.”

From poverty to abundance

(not edited draft)

“The history of poverty is almost the history of mankind.” \citep{hazlitt96} One feature of poverty is the extreme shortage of food—that is, famine. There are records of famines from ancient Rome in 441 BCE in Western Europe due to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. There were recurring famines in England and the European continent. Mass starvation frequently happened from the early Middle Ages to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

As it is well-known, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), the English economist, suggested that the linear increase of food production implies the exponential increase of the population, rather than having a lower population, but with a higher living standard. It was a pessimistic perspective. The general view was that Malthus was wrong. Cheap and ample energy (provided mostly as the result of propagation of steam engines) and cheap and plenty raw materials resulted in both agricultural and industrial productivity during the Industrial Revolution. Food production also grew exponentially, and the exponent of food growth was larger than that of the population growth.

The steam engine was one example of the conversion of one type of energy (thermal) into another (mechanical). James Watt’s (1736–1819) used a feedback principle
to control the speed by self-regulation. It is a big event in the history of technological development. Watt designed a centrifugal flyball governor for regulating the speed of the rotary steam engine and a constant a constant speed was
generated by automatic control. The steam engine revolutionized the textile industry and transportation. Robert Fulton (1765-1815), an American engineer, developed a steamboat in 1807, which traveled between New York and Albany on the Hudson River, and George Stephenson (1781-1848) designed steam-powered railways, which crossed between Stockton and Darlington in the northeast of England in 1825.

So machines and new (coal-based) energy sources became the driving forces of the technological changes that interconnected society’s new lifestyles and organizations. Factories were established since the new machines were way too large to house in a worker’s cottage. Factories needed people. There was a fear among small textile workshop owners that machine-based factories would replace people, who would lose their jobs. A community, the Luddites, organized actions to destroy factories. The short-term job losses were compensated for by new machines and investments, by lower prices and by new products. From an historical perspective the Luddites were wrong: “If the Luddite fallacy were true we would all be out of work because productivity has been increasing for two centuries.” \citep{tabarrok03} Soon there was a transition from a rural society to an urban community. This transition is related to the free market and capitalism, as we know that new classes, the bourgeois and proletariat, appeared.

Returning to technology and industrial development, as they are the tools of the transition to abundance, we cannot overestimate the significance of the Bessemer process for the manufacture of steel. The new method made it possible to produce much cheaper, more impured steel. Most importantly, this steel was then used for large construction. The “robber barons,” as the men who oversaw industry giants are sometimes called, like them or not, contributed very much to the birth of modern America by building the modern industries of steel and railroads and integrating such infrastructure with oil and electricity.
The previous two centuries were very contradictory. While there were recurring famines in the 19th 20th centuries, and we had at least two terrible world wars, the years between 1800 and 2000 showed the most prolific growth and economic development in humankind’s history. Much of this progress stems from the Enlightenment.
%We write this text in November 2020, so it is difficult to detach from the US’s actual epidemics and political uncertainties. Still, looking at things from an historical perspective,
The gross world product (GWP) has grown with a dramatic velocity. Data and mathematical models show that GWP evolved at rates faster than exponential—what we call super-exponential. In the exponential growth rate, the acceleration (the speed of the change of velocity) is constant, but when the acceleration is growing, then GWP would keep to infinity \citep{roodman20}. Compared to the lingering misery of the past, human society made a rapid transition from poverty to abundance. (More discussion about growth processes will follow in \ref{ssec:toomuch}).

We don’t necessarily suggest that models capable of describing the past can be adopted without modification to predict the future. However, it is not unreasonable to imagine that new technologies like artificial intelligence will play a similar innovative role to increase growth, as tools like fire, the wheel, the steam engine, and electricity did. It is too early to see the mechanism, but new economic models \citep{acem-rest19,petho18} suggest that the job-reducing effects of automation are overcompensated for by the creation of new jobs that are not dependent on automation. However, optimistic and pessimistic predictions can coexist. In the fall of 2019, the journal \emph{European Economic Review} published a special issue with the title “The Economics of Malthusianism: Can Malthusism return?” In an era of declining population growth, when the proportion of dependents might surge dramatically due to an increase in life expectancy, some kinds of Malthusian concerns might return \citep{naso20}.

Shoes Should Be Fixed!

Especially if you play soccer, and even if you don’t, shoes will get torn and wear away from sauntering around the neighborhood after school. Uncle Matuszka had a cobbler shop close to the fluid border between Angyalföld, (the now-disappearing working class’s Land of Angels'') and Újlipótváros (New Leopold Town,” inhabited by middle-class intellectuals of Jewish origin). He spent the whole, long day mending shoes in his street-facing workshop with the help of his deaf assistant. The room was dark—the only internal source of pale light was a single bulb hanging from the ceiling on a wire. When I (P) visited, I always smelled the scent of a mixture of leather, shoe-shine, glues, adhesives, dyes, and cat pee.

Boots in the winter, sandals in the summer. Girls had Japanese leather slippers, and as I just learned from a dear girlfriend from my college years, the white upper part made from matte leather was artificially treated by a piece of chalk.

Uncle Matuszka repaired and restored everything. Broken heels and worn-out soles were repaired. Holes were patched. Blown seams were resewn. His workshop was full of tools, hammers, knives of different sizes, and a variety of nail and tack pullers. There were sewing threads and straight and curved hook needles. There were hardwood lasts—holding devices shaped like a human foot. Nails and screws lived in a metal container. Uncle Matuszka used wooden pins, “pegs,” to attach leather soles. First, he made a hole with the awl, the sharp-pointed piece of steel, then placed a dowel before hammering. As I correspond with my high-school and college classmates (these correspondences became very intensive during the emergence of the pandemic), we all agreed that our minds preserve the cobblers’ small and dark shops as palaces of miracles. We also agreed that it was one place we learned that things should be repaired.

REPAIR: Progress report

We are working on the book, and progressing according to our planned schedule.

To give some hint about Chapter 1, see



1.1 Our Early Encounters in Repairing

1.1.1 Bridges Over the Danube

1.1.2 Shoes Should Be Fixed!

1.1.3 A Lenci doll

1.1.4 The story of an oak table

1.1.5 Aunt Ella, the needlewoman

1.1.6 Oh, my sister

1.1.7 The book in perspective .

1.2 The rise and fall of the “throw-away society”

1.2.1 From poverty to abundance

1.2.2 Planned obsolence

1.2.3 Food waste versus hunger

1.2.4 Fast Fashion: Under the spell of cheap clothing

1.2.5 Consumerism

1.2.6 The throw-away society: Emergence and call for the end .

1.2.7 Social relationships as resources. . .

. . .

Manipulation of Ranking: a HUGE scandal !!!!

Reviews in the BIG Japanese newspapers

The Japanese translation of Ranking has been reviewed in the three big
Japanese daily newspapers. As my colleague, Noriko Sugimori wrote me, Asahi
is Japan’s New York Times. Nikkei is Japan’s Wall Street Journal. Youmiuri
has the largest paper circulation in the world. For the reviews and her
rough translation, see:
p=sharing []​