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Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America First Edition Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674022034
ISBN-10: 0674022033
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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. His episodic treatment sometimes meanders into too-obscure byways, and his alarm at the prospect of thrown-away electronic gadgets overflowing landfills and poisoning the water supply seems overblown. But Slade's lively, insightful look at a pervasive aspect of America's economy and culture make this book a keeper.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Americans threw out 315 million computers in 2004, and 100 million cell phones in 2005. Most were still usable, and all contain permanent biological toxins (PBTs). Electronic trash, or e-waste, is rapidly becoming a catastrophic problem. To understand how we ended up in this alarming predicament, Slade recounts the fascinating history of American consumer culture and the engineering of our "throw-away ethic." Quoting an eye-opening array of primary sources, he exposes the strategies of obsolescence, first explicating the techniques companies have used to stimulate perpetual dissatisfaction with the old and desire for the new, thus engendering "psychological obsolescence." Next, he meticulously documents the establishment of the much more diabolical "planned obsolescence," the deliberate use of poor-quality materials to create a product's built-in "death date." Along the way, Slade portrays seminal inventors, advertisers, moguls, and their critics, while relating hard-to-believe stories about the machinations of such marketplace powerhouses as the automotive and communications industries. Slade's fresh and thought-provoking analysis of conspicuous consumption and its unintended environmental consequences closes with a clarion call for combating e-waste. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; First Edition edition (April 15, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674022033
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674022034
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,455,627 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Giles Slade is an award winning environmentalist concerned about the diminishing quality of life that awaits his children under climate change. His rich and colorful history also includes stints as a college lecturer, a Harlequin adventure novel writer, an illegal alien, a convicted felon and a college professor. The father of three, Giles is a passionate believer in the vital importance of leaving the smallest possible environmental debt to be resolved and accommodated in our children's century. He is regularly published in a variety of other print and online journals. He is the author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America and The Big Disconnect: The Story of Technology and Loneliness.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Giles Slade opens this monograph with a flurry of astounding facts: in 2004, 315 million working PCs were thrown out in North America alone, and in the following year over 100 million cell phones joined them on the trashheap. That's tons of electronic equipment-larded with non-biogradable components and toxic waste-filling up garbage dumps around the world.

What drives this rush to trash? According to Slade, it obsolescence, rather than failure. Your last computer likely didn't wear out-you junked it because a faster, lighter, and spiffier one came out.

Since the Great Depression, it's been clear that consumption, rather than production, drives the economy. With America getting more efficient at producing goods, it follows that, to precent another economic downturn, someone has to convince people to buy more goods.

Slade traces the roots of "repetitive consumption back to the beginnings of branding and packaging in the middle of the 19th century. Over time, the American ethic of thrift collapsed before social pressures to buy new, rather than save the old. The first several chapters nicely sketch the cultural changes-and their underlying economic drivers-that created the annual model change. Similarly, producers began obliquely discussing "planned obsolescene." This could mean, in the case of automobiles, that the customer would decide on his own to buy a more up-to-date car in the latest model, or, in some cases, that internal components unable to be replaced would fail after a set lifespan. "Death dating" products was a controversial practice, but many in various industries (particularly consumer electronics) supported it.
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Format: Hardcover
This book ain't perfect. Slade neglects to carefully distinguish planned obsolescence from other sorts. And the Cold War chapter really doesn't belong in the book. But there are no conspiracy theories here; the only conspiracy in Slade's argument is the profit motive. That is, to the extent that selling products with a short lifespan is more profitable than the alternative, companies will seek to do it. Far from being a lunatic "theory," this is marketing 101. And Slade -- as Vance Packard did before him -- documents it with the words of marketers themselves.

Libertarians who believe that the market delivers only teddy bears and chocolates aren't going to like this book. But for the rest of us, it's an engaging, critical look at how we got to a place where $400 music players and fancy cell phones have become throwaway items.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had read "Made to Break" years ago, as a teenager, and I remember it being the first nonfiction book I really liked. It opened doors for me, and I went with gusto into such classic texts as "The World Without Us" and Jared Diamond's dense-but-meaningful "Collapse." "Made to Break" got me ready for stuff like that.

It was therefore with some surprise that I found the book to be much narrower in scope than I had remembered it to be. Although it deals with broad trends of the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries, it goes through them more as a series of museum exhibits than as flowing phenomena (as "The World Without Us" does, for instance). Readers are reintroduced to such inborn phenomena as the yearly model change, the Cold War and what it really means to own a cell phone. Even though Slade is working outward from example, rather than inward from concepts in abstraction, the text is never confusing and rarely boring.

Those who question consumer society at all, whether in whole or in part, would do well to have a look into the events that brought us to where we stand today - and what it means when something is indeed made to break.
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Format: Paperback
This book gives a nice introduction into obsolescence in America.

As some commenters before me have already noticed, the title is somewhat misleading. The book is not entirely about planned obsolescence, mostly connected with "death-dating", where products are made with an intrinsic expiration date after which they will break down. This would also have been hard. There are not many examples where it has been proven unequivocally that a company produced its products with a death-date. The most famous example is still the iPod, where it at first was impossible to replace the battery and where Apple also would refuse to exchange it. Hence, once the battery was broken, the whole iPod had to be discarded. A book about planned obsolescence only with these proven examples would thus have turned out thinly, indeed.

The sub-title on the other hand describes nicely what the book is about: Technology and Obsolescence in America. So the book gives a thorough introduction into the whole culture of products being made soon to be thrown away, where it is sometimes hard to distinguish between technical obsolescence, psychological obsolescence and planned obsolescence. Is now the new iPhone really technically superior to older ones, or do people just expect every year to get a new one? The conclusions of the book came out indeed somehow noncommittal, but I'm afraid short of a cultural change, not much will help, and this is always difficult to suggest in a book.

Summarizing, this is a book well worth being read by people who wonder why there is every year a new model of their favorite smart phone brand.
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