Saturday, 8 October 2011

The Lightbulb Conspiracy

Once upon a time..... products were made to last. Then, at the beginning of the 1920s, a group of businessmen were struck by the following insight: 'A product that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business'. Thus, Planned Obsolescence was born...


Ok, this one's a bit obscure. I finally got around to watching a few short films from a festival that my friend gave to me. This one was an hour long - not what I expected when I sat down for a few minutes of down time, but I resolved to watch the beginning. To my surprise, it was thoroughly engaging and insightful, breakdown of the driving forces and dark secrets behind the capitalist economy that runs our society (or, at any rate, mine).

The documentary begins with an ordinary Barcelonan man trying to print something with his Epson. But the printer isn't working! Best get a new one, all the technology shops say. A part in it needs replacing, but to do so would cost more than it's worth. As the man embarks on a quest to restore his printer to functionality - a printer with not a thing wrong with it other than a full ink overflow - the film explores the origins and effects of Planned Obsolescence.

You may not have heard of Planned Obsolescence, but if you live in a developed society, you most definitely would have experienced it. It's the concept of every thing that you purchase having an "expiry date". Even though it could be designed to last for longer, it has been intentionally built to break after a certain period, to encourage consumers to buy a new one. Another definition given to us is the "desire on the part of the consumer to own something a little newer, a little sooner than is necessary..." The film explains that it all began with the first mass-market light bulbs, when the leading manufacturers got together and agreed that the limit for a light bulbs life span should be universally set at 1000 hours (prior to this, 2500+ hours had been achieved). This meant that the customers would be forced to purchase a new bulb more often, making them more money.

Although at first the film seems to finger-point at the big businesses and corporations behind this seemingly sinister suggestion, it isn't afraid to examine the issue more thoroughly, and delve deeper into what the concept meant for the industrialized world. In America, it was the adoption of Planned Obsolescence on a broader scale - from cars to fridges to stockings - that revitalised the economy, and pulled them out of the great depression. In East Germany and other socialist states, the hardy made-to-last products that suited the communist economy couldn't hold up in a capitalist market, where spending drives growth, and growth is the ultimate objective. 100 000 hour bulbs now only exist in museums. Ultimately, it is society that is to blame, and every individual that takes part in it.

What comes to mind is a quote I learnt from Civilization IV, which baffled me when I first heard it:
"The bureaucracy must expand to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy"

In a fascinating and poignant final segment, the movie then follows massive shipping containers of 'broken' technology out of America and accross the ocean into third-world Africa. There we see a society whose home has become a waste dump for our excess; the more we grow, the more these people must strive.

In sum: the film is challenging, and engaging, and if you didn't zone out when I mentioned capitalist economy (or even if you did, and you skipped to the end to read the summary), look for a chance to check it out. It's shorter than a full length movie, but will make you think harder. And if there's any hope of getting ourselves out of this rut, it's going to take a lot of thinking...