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Made to Break

Made to Break

Technology and Obsolescence in America

Giles Slade

ISBN 9780674025721

Publication date: 10/30/2007

Listen to a short interview with Giles SladeHost: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

If you've replaced a computer lately--or a cell phone, a camera, a television--chances are, the old one still worked. And chances are even greater that the latest model won't last as long as the one it replaced. Welcome to the world of planned obsolescence--a business model, a way of life, and a uniquely American invention that this eye-opening book explores from its beginnings to its perilous implications for the very near future.

Made to Break is a history of twentieth-century technology as seen through the prism of obsolescence. America invented everything that is now disposable, Giles Slade tells us, and he explains how disposability was in fact a necessary condition for America's rejection of tradition and our acceptance of change and impermanence. His book shows us the ideas behind obsolescence at work in such American milestones as the inventions of branding, packaging, and advertising; the contest for market dominance between GM and Ford; the struggle for a national communications network, the development of electronic technologies--and with it the avalanche of electronic consumer waste that will overwhelm America's landfills and poison its water within the coming decade.

History reserves a privileged place for those societies that built things to last--forever, if possible. What place will it hold for a society addicted to consumption--a whole culture made to break? This book gives us a detailed and harrowing picture of how, by choosing to support ever-shorter product lives we may well be shortening the future of our way of life as well.

Praise

  • The flip side of America's worship of novelty is its addiction to waste, a linkage illuminated in this fascinating historical study. Historian Slade surveys the development of disposability as a consumer convenience, design feature, economic stimulus and social problem, from General Motors' 1923 introduction of annual model changes that prodded consumers to trade in perfectly good cars for more stylish updates, to the modern cell-phone industry, where fashion-driven "psychological obsolescence" compounds warp-speed technological obsolescence to dramatically reduce product life-cycles. He also explores the debate over "planned obsolescence" decried by social critics as an unethical affront to values of thrift and craftsmanship, but defended as a Darwinian spur to innovation by business intellectuals who further argued that "wearing things out does not produce prosperity, but buying things does." Slade's even-handed analysis acknowledges both manufacturers' manipulative marketing ploys and consumers' ingrained love of the new as motors of obsolescence, which he considers an inescapable feature of a society so focused on progress and change...Slade's lively, insightful look at a pervasive aspect of America's economy and culture make this book a keeper.

    —Publisher's Weekly

Author

  • Giles Slade is an independent scholar and freelance writer.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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