Technology made to be broken

Manufacturers need to take some responsibility for our 'throw away' habits.

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My dad bought me a good watch when I was 16. It was a 23-jewel, self-winding Bulova built to last a lifetime. It carried an implicit recognition that I'd grown up - sort of - and that keeping time, meeting deadlines, being where I was supposed to be were all important considerations for the adult I'd become.

Anticipating my oldest son's 16th birthday, I asked him what kind of watch he wanted. But the pleasure of wearing this "badge of maturity" was lost on him.

"Can I have an iPod instead?" he said. I've been considering his request ever since.

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iPods have clocks in them. So do cellphones. My son already has a cellphone, so he doesn't really need a watch.

"No watch?" I asked.

"They're old school," he said, meaning out-of-date, out moded, obsolete.

Sensing a trend, I asked, "Do any of your friends wear watches?"

"No," he said. And it's true.

Likewise, nearly 60 percent of American teens have never owned or worn a wristwatch. Wristwatch consumption is in a spiral of decline at a rate slightly exceeding 10 percent a year.

When I realized my son was right, peripheral things suddenly began to make sense. In recent years, I've been confused by attempts to include GPS locaters, cellphones, calculators, PDAs, and even cigarette lighters in wristwatches. Again and again I asked myself, "Does anybody really want this stuff?"

Of course, the answer is, "No."

From the perspective of a declining market, however, these wacky new products reveal watch manufacturers' desperate search for something they can continue to manufacture and sell. The production of any technological device goes hand in hand with the question: "Where is next year's market going to come from?" Repetitive consumption, after all, drives American and global economies.

Take, for example, the iPod my son wants.

Obviously, Apple has come a long way since it accidentally sold GUI (graphical user interface) to Microsoft for peanuts. This time, starting with an ordinary MP3 player, Apple cleverly branded downloadable songs as a way of guaranteeing both the songs' quality and iTune's continuous sales. Meanwhile, they upgrade their player continuously. As often as possible, Apple introduces new, improved, smaller, faster, more powerful models that make their predecessors seem much less desirable. This is what we call "technological obsolescence."

Into this classic marketing strategy, Apple then adds "planned" obsolescence. Lithium batteries sealed inside iPod bodies begin to lose their peak functionality after a year of use. By year two, you can only play your tunes half of the time. This makes the newest model your friend owns so much more attractive. Solution: Toss the old one into the trash and demand the newest iPod for Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. Apple, after all, was the company that originated the expression: "Never trust a computer you can't throw out...."

So, what's good for Apple is good for the economy, and therefore good for America?

No. And the ozone hole over our frenzy of consumption is formidable. Apple has already sold 40 million iPods. They are chemically complex little doodads. Like every electronic device, they are full of poisonous stuff that's truly bad for the environment. (My favorites include lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, and barium). iPods are also so small that it's expensive to disassemble them and quite easy to toss them into the trash, which then sits in the landfill poisoning our groundwater.

Everything about our culture encourages us to toss broken, useless gizmos into the trash.

In addition to iPods, there are already hundreds of millions of obsolescent cellphones in America. There are also 550 million obsolete PCs and more than 300 million analog TVs that will become obsolete in 2009. The repetitive consumption of these devices is being force-fed by feckless electronics manufacturers who don't yet have a compelling bottom-line reason to stop being so irresponsible.

Maybe it's time we gave them one.

Congress is sitting on four bills that would make electronics manufacturers pay to collect their obsolete toys and disassemble them. As soon as it starts costing these manufacturers money, they'll start making less toxic devices that are much, much more durable.

It can be done.

Think of the Mars Rover and my dad's Bulova.

Not everything we make needs to be made to break.

Giles Slade is the author of "Made To Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America" and has taught American cultural studies at the university level.

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