Saturday, October 11, 2014

Planned Obsolescence Smoking Light Bulb

Some of you may have heard of the "Lightbulb Conspiracy," and even seen it referenced in the film Pyramids of Waste. The Lightbulb Conspiracy was a legendary example of planned obsolescence - the idea that products can not make sufficient profits under capitalism if they work too well - and so capitalism has a built-in incentive to creative shoddy goods that need to be replaced. Thus, capitalism also has an incentive to turn raw materials to waste as quickly as possible, and thus production for short-term profit alone is also inherently destructive.

Economists and libertarians always dismiss this, of course, since they must defend this system. That is their job, after all. So you'll inevitably see a "debunking" of planned obsolescence whenever and wherever the issue is raised. It's "too hard to do" or "competition will always win out," are some of the more common arguments, along with demanding absolute "proof" (that better designs sit on the drawing board is apparently not proof enough). After all, aren't most products today somewhat better than we were using in _insert date here_ (but as quality and long-lasting as they could be is? the real question)

That why this article from IEEE spectrum is a must-read. It is an in-depth accounting of the lightbulb conspiracy. Oh, it's real, all right. The lightbulb manufacturers got together and realized that competition was eating into their profits. So they created something called the Phoebus cartel, an organization whose sole aim was to make sure a lightbulb did not last too long:
The Phoebus cartel [was] a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market, with each national and regional zone assigned its own manufacturers and production quotas. It was the first cartel in history to enjoy a truly global reach.

The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent lightbulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.
How exactly did the cartel pull off this engineering feat? It wasn’t just a matter of making an inferior or sloppy product; anybody could have done that. But to create one that reliably failed after an agreed-upon 1,000 hours took some doing over a number of years. The household lightbulb in 1924 was already technologically sophisticated: The light yield was considerable; the burning time was easily 2,500 hours or more. By striving for something less, the cartel would systematically reverse decades of progress.
The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy (IEEE Spectrum)

The "Conversable Economist" supplies a good anecdote from Hollywood history:
The old 1951 movie "The Man in the White Suit," starring Alec Guinness, is both an entertaining adventure/comedy and a meditation on technology and planned obsolescence. The Alec Guinness character invents a wonderful new fabric that will never get dirty and never wear out. He sees a future where ordinary people will save money on clothes and cleaning expenses. People marvel at the invention at first, but soon everyone is against him: the textile and clothing companies fear his cloth will put them out of business, the workers in those companies fear losing their jobs, and those who do the washing fear losing work, too. Near the end of the movie, one character notes wryly that markets won't function if the products work too well. He says: “What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that doesn’t get blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something else?”
"Tucker: A Man and His Dream" is another movie deals with this same concept - the entrenched powers of the automobile industry deliberately crush the man who made a better car and keep it from consumers (but eventually copy and introduce Tucker's innovations parceled out over a sufficiently long period of time).

This, of course, an "obvious" example complete with smoking gun lightbulb. But I'm pretty sure there are a lot more examples that are less blatant where all the participants tacitly agree not to compete too hard since most markets are dominated by a small handful of players. No "official" cartel with its own office, signed documents, or smoke-filled back room is required. Thorstein Veblen wrote about this back in the 1920's and his followers started the Technocracy Movement which pointed this out along with the folly of the financial system (this was during the Great Depression) and unemployment caused by automation and efficiency gains. Today, the Zeitgeist Movement is the heir to that tradition.

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