Ecological Obsolescence – Towards Total Disposability

…obsolescence as a process is wealth-producing, not wasteful.  It leads to constant renewal of the industrial establishment at higher and higher levels, and it provides a way of getting a maximum of good to a maximum of people…The waste occurs where obsolescence is both too slow and too haphazard, where adequate information and adequate controls and systematic elimination are lacking.

–        George Nelson, “Obsolescence,” Perspecta, vol. 11, 1967

Technology implied change, and so a positive attitude implied a dynamic, living and progressive society rather than one which was stagnating with an outmoded culture and set of values.  Technology was the provider of material dreams.

–        Nigel Whiteley, “Towards a Throw-Away Culture, Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s,” Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1987

No less than three generations of Americans have lived in an economy that has, in one way or another, embraced obsolescence as an integral aspect of commercial design; and no less than three generations of Americans have come to both expect and exalt in the apparently endless procession of “new,” “original” and “novel” commodities that are released every season, only to become outdated within another.  The penultimate condition of most Americans’ possessions is decidedly antediluvian.  We live precariously poised somewhere between the passing present and the promises of the immanent future; always becoming that which will be transformed by the transcendent objects that we alternately covet and consume.

The promise of the new provides us with the momentum to move forward, to explore alternative possibilities, to imagine undreamt of (or realize tentative) potential futures.  Obsolescence provides designers and manufacturers with the latitude to improve upon products that are necessarily imperfect, because they have not yet reached the condition of cathartic stagnation known as “perfection,” which in the capitalist milieu is the economic equivalent of product apotheosis, or death.  This, of course, results in the gospel of modulated improvement by which most designers and manufacturers live.

Meanwhile, competition ideally provides the incentive to produce maximal goods.  In an ideal world, the two work in concert to guarantee that the products on today’s shelves are the best products they can be (at least until the next generation of products takes their places), while at the same time ensuring that these products are priced well enough for rapid replacement.  This is why today’s youth work and play on machines that were the stuff of science fiction during the youths of their parents and grandparents, exemplifying a rapidity of progress unrealized until the last century.

However, it is precisely the newness of this model, and of the worlds premised upon its endless product releases, that makes many apprehensive.  The response to today’s obsolescent lifestyle is frequently the glorification of handcraftsmanship and the unique products of the workshop.  This corresponds with a moral/ethical alignment that, more often than not, values singularity over popularity, eternity over time and abstract forms over existential facts; it is the noble poverty of early Christianity and Buddhism, the relinquishment of earthly desires and the enraptured embrace of cloud-top condominiums far from the fetid face of the material universe.

Aesthetic “judgment” is often enlisted to support an economy of singularity, even in an age of reproduction, frequently bemoaning the “tastelessness” of mass-produced goods, while extoling the merits of fine art, or high-end, objects.  These arguments are generally based on the same notions of immanence, permanence and unrepeatability that undergird Keatsian notions of beauty[1] and the reactionary proponents of preindustrial production.  However, as John McHale argues in The Plastic Parthenon, the problem isn’t that mass produced goods don’t live up to aesthetic expectations, it is that aesthetic expectations are based on incommensurate criteria.

The closest the West has come to accepting (much less embracing) the aesthetics of mass-production as a meaningful cultural attribute has been “Pop” Art, which, in its methods, essentially reduced mass-produced artifacts to individually-produced fine art simulacra, the value of which was dependent upon traditional aesthetic interpretations.  Thus, the failure of Pop Art was not its subject, it was the way it handled this subject as an ideal object.  The contingency, reproducibility and disposability of popular products became sublimated in a system that still relied on notions of permanence, singularity and necessity as primary determinants of value.

Needless to say, the West has not yet developed aesthetic criteria sufficient to address disposability, contingency and reproducibility, because there is still an assumed connection between beauty and eternity.  The concept of disposable beauty has not, yet, been acknowledged, even as it is realized regularly in contemporary habits of consumption.  However, instead of acknowledging our indebtedness to the disposable objects that aesthetically enrich our daily lives, we bemoan the wastefulness of consumerist economies – the very economies that ensure that the things that we throw away are the best things they could have been in the brief moment of their ascendency.

This is to confuse methods of production with the materials of production, and aesthetics with ethics, for it is neither obsolescence, nor consumer culture which is to blame for the world’s woes, rather it is the mismanagement of both, in part because of antiquated systems of valuation that frustrate the momentum of true obsolescence.  Thus, instead of producing entirely obsolete products, that are equally absolutely disposable, we produce quasi-obsolete products and are only partially disposable.  Permanence and resilience are still too coveted, taste and evolution, still too disparaged.  If we want to change our house the way that we change our clothes, then it should be not only feasible, but fashionable to do so; the divergent timelines of contemporary disposability should be abolished along with any notions of permanence.

This implies, not only products that are 100% obsolete, but also those that are 100% disposable.  Any misalignment of these two categories (as exemplified by contemporary product cycles) becomes quickly catastrophic; if we are to have the one, then we must have the other, and potentially another, since this is the governing paradigm of our age.  We have vast unnatural repositories of waste, and these resources must be mined.  They are the unfortunate offspring of contingency combined with necessity, of disposability combined with longevity and of obsolescence combined with permanence.  As such, they represent a confusion of ideological orientation, and a total lack of commitment.

For, it has never been reproducibility, obsolescence or disposability that has offended “finer” sensibilities, rather it has always been the accidental products of each; wastelands and landfills populated by mass-produced quasi-obsolete and quasi-disposable products.  The world cannot properly progress under the regressive inflection of contemporary production practices, and the continued manufacture of uncommitted products of pseudo-expendability.  No product should be needed beyond its most recent version, and no object should last longer than it is needed.

The greatest challenge facing contemporary designers is not creating more “functional,” nor more beautiful objects, it is in realizing the full evolutionary potential of designing maximally obsolescent and disposable products; products that are subject to an unending line of improvements at negligible cost to the consumer.  In some respects, this challenge is already being met, in terms of microminiaturized electronic objects (many of which are replacing their bulky brethren); and in terms of the software that they require for operation.

With the increased speed of contemporary digital networks, it becomes possible to download robust programs, which eliminates waste, in terms of discs and packaging, is convenient for the consumer, and allows for rapid upgrade and/or replacement at a later date; because the program is not tied to a material object, the consumer is not tied to a specific version of the product.  The ephemerality of contemporary systems of digital distribution, best exemplified by the rise of the app, is a model that should be mimicked in other fields of “manufacture.”  Hardware should be as malleable, cheap and replaceable as is software, or even better “freeware.”

Once any product has become 100% obsolete, it should also be fully reabsorbed into the cycles of production out of which it came, not as an alternative industry of waste, but rather as the bits and pieces of newer products – it should be 100% disposable.  Components that cannot be reintegrated into the production cycle, should be biodegradable, or deployable in alternative milieus; the product should be designed for disposability if it is designed for obsolescence.  As a society, it benefits all of us to embrace the low-cost, rapid development model of planned obsolescence, but for this model to be most effective, in needs to abandon any associations with notions of permanence and durability.

This does not mean designing products that become artificially obsolete (that break), but rather quality products that embrace their own truncated lifespans as a positive aspect of contemporary consumerist culture, and its benefits in terms of product diversification, lifestyle creation and the happiness that comes with freedom of choice and individuation.  The teleological trajectory of high capitalism ultimately leads to unending cycles of product releases, and the supersession of the present in preference for the new.  It is defined by an un-slaked longing for original designs, urging an army of consumers forward, towards Amazon and WalMart, Target and Ikea, Best Buy and Apple, in anticipation of ever more interesting, ever more powerful, ever more beautiful mass-produced objects of transient desire.

The momentum of this movement is well-neigh irresistible; its minions far too numerous, and its projected benefits, unlimited.  Restraint, austerity and self-sacrifice, while noble attributes for cultures of want defined by preindustrial levels of production and wealth, will never be fully embraced by the wealthy, industrialized nations of the world.  Furthermore, as more countries become economically more affluent and more industrially productive, the basic conditions of waste that define high capitalist culture will spread to the more remote nations of the globe.

There has never been any hope, nor success, in attempting to stem the tide of capitalist culture, or to temper it with mandatory moments of austerity.  Yet, if we are to maintain current levels of consumption, if the system of unending cycles that benefits the vast majority of people in the form of newer, better and cheaper products fulfilling (even if only momentarily) the desires of consumers, then it becomes necessary to imbed a degree of sustainability into contemporary methods of production and distribution.  The best way to do this is by fully embracing the ethos of obsolescence and disposability that undergirds contemporary patterns of production and consumption, and to ensure that products are maximally disposable and obsolete within the context of their distinct life cycles and consumer demand.


[1] This is best seen in the introductory stanzas to “Endymion,” which start, famously, “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:/Its loveliness increases; it will never/Pass into nothingness; but still will keep/A bower quiet for us, and a sleep/Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”

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