or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 3/10/13

   March 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week is actually a crowdsourcing request to find the answer to a question. Last month, a friend of mine at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, tweeted:

Tweet from @itsokihaveabook  Has anyone seen a historical chart of when things can't be repaired and must be replaced instead? Pls send link if you find it!

I followed up with her and got a little more detail on what she's after:

What I am looking for is basically a timeline showing when repair of certain things became obsolete; for example, approximately when most people stopped taking their shoes to a cobbler and just bought new shoes, or when radio or toaster repair became a thing of the past and you just had to get a new one instead.

That sounded like a chart I'd like to see, and I'm always happy to help, so I started researching to see what I could find. The search so far has been unsuccessful, and earlier this week she posted an open request on her blog asking for help. If you're interested, please lend a hand - unanswered question bother me.

Apple connectors that change with every generationThe search has turned up some good stuff though. I like making and repairing my own things, so of course this question - and the notion of planned obsolescence in general - interests me. Jenny listed some of the resources we've found so far, including the one I found most eye-opening, "Consumer Society Is Made To Break," because of this:

“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized.

The full text of the pamphlet is included in their post. To me, planned obsolescence did seem like some kind of manufacturer's conspiracy, so I was surprised to read it originated as a solution to the great depression. I suppose that makes sense, but the idea of deliberately building a short - and unextendable - lifespan into products to force people to spend more money on a replacement is just offensive.

Anyway, if anyone manages to find what Jenny is looking for, please let her know (and me too). Thanks!

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