Monday, June 16, 2008

The Disposable Society

The developing world seems to have one advantage that we may lack: repair culture. The developed world has lost this, as more and more consumables are made to be disposable. Everything we buy is built with a short life-time and minimal durability. It leads us to ask:

Is disposability stifling innovation, or does it help to drive it?

Repair Culture it, by it's very label, a culture in which old items are patched and fixed to their original function, or juri-rigged to create some new and otherwise unthought-of purpose. This culture thrives in most parts of the world where new items are difficult to afford or obtain.

Repair culture was also a major part of the depression-era generation. This generation came of age in a time when resources were scare. This was the time of bread lines and dust bowls. The only way to keep your car going was to fix it. The only way to have a toy was to build your own.

World War Two changed that for the Boomer generation. Productivity soared, incomes rose, and so to did the appetites for more and more consumer goods. All that production had to go some place.

In some ways, the technology industry is to blame for the loss of this repair culture. Continually increasing processing power, miniaturizing and mobilizing. More bells were added, more whistles were inserted, and more features were plied on top. This constant need for the newest, best item caused us to drop the old and replace it with the new.

One of the most prevalent areas where this is true is in home computers. Most users will simply replace their old PC's with a shiny, fast new model. The old PC will be tossed in a closet, only to be thrown out later. Some may be given to a son or daughter who needs one for school. Even that lucky PC will be tossed on the heap soon enough.

Not to say that no one keeps old hardware around. A small number of people keep their old hardware, or even acquire that of others, in order to tinker, repair, or play. These people either refuse to give up there old hardware (like many a word-processor user - and not the users of MS-Word). There are even those of us who like to keep a typewriter around, but more as a object d'art.

Another cause of this lose of repair culture is the rise of the consumer-based economy. Corporations have long needed to continue the increase of their bottom-line and have relied on consumers to continue purchasing newer and better goods. Creating need for the newer edition of a product, before the old one is ready for the junk heap has done wonders for the profit of these companies[1]. This is more of a product of the motive for profit outweighing the motive for conservation and savings. I won't discount what it's done for the standard of living, but I also won't argue that it's a sustainable way to go forward.

But let's return to the subject what this does for innovation. On the one hand disposability drives innovation. The designer can be continually adding to (or removing from, in the case of added efficiencies) older designs, added this feature they felt was missed, or that feature that would really bring the product together. Equally, the designer is often free to throw away whole portions of the earlier design, if not all of it and start from scratch.

Software design provides a good analogy for this, but it can be seen in physical design, as well. Look at all of the design changes in Apple's line of products, or compare a 1995 Volkswagen with a 2008 (or a 2007 with a 2008 for that matter). Well designed software is built through a process of careful forethought and brutal afterthought. Many of the features are designed into a product before code is written, and they are made to work extremely well after it has been put to bits.

The real test of design quality is the second pass of features. A well designed system is has either designed a place for those features of an immediately obvious nature. If not, a good designer doesn't just wedge them in there. The rest of the system is evaluated, dismantled, and rebuilt with the new features in mind. Much of the old system is disposed of during this process.

On the other hand, innovations that allow for flexibility, reusibility, and longevity or overlooked. They are not treated with the same level of necessity that time-to-market or sales volume are. Consumers have also been conditioned to not ask for these features, allowing the disposable culture to continue.

The cassette tape is a good example of an item that had to be designed to be a fixed media. It the magnetic strip that makes up the recording cannot prevent reuse. This led to the development of a little tab on the tab, which if missing made the tape "read-only." One could argue that this was a safety measure to prevent people from recording over their favorite Duran Duran album, but it also dissuaded them from recording over said album when they finally came to their musical senses.

There are a few groups that do advocate the reuse, repair and re-purposing of things. One such group is the people (and readers) of Make Magazine, and many other like-minded forums. Unfortunately, these groups have a thriving repair culture more often due to a desire to be inventive and to tinker with the world around them. It's not an attempt revolutionize the disposable society.

Hopefully the example of these groups will inspire the rest of the culture. Perhaps there is a bit of hope yet.

[1] I would whole-heartedly recommend the BBC documentary series The Century of Self, for more on this subject.

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