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.
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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
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