Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America

By Jackson, Kathy Merlock | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2008 | Go to article overview

Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America


Jackson, Kathy Merlock, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America Giles Slade. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

The book's cover, depicting a storage space filled with discarded computer monitors, says it all. As American technology advances, the waste increases. We are living in a society of obsolescence, where consumer products outdate quickly and are simply made to break. Although this is not new, Giles Slade shows in Made to Break how the computer age of the twenty-first century has taken it to greater heights. His statistics are staggering. In 2004, about 315 million working PCs were retired for newer models, with only about ten percent of them being refurbished and the rest being trashed (1). In general, Americans expect to replace their home computers every two years, and sometimes even sooner. Cell phones do not even last that long. The average American replaces a cell phone every eighteen months, creating a huge stockpile of still-functioning equipment ready for disposal; in 2005, more than 100 million cell phones were discarded, creating 50,000 tons of waste added to the 200,000 tons already taking space in landfills (2). According to Slade, "discarded cell phones represent a toxic time bomb waiting to enter America's landfills and water table" (2). Other items, television sets, radios, automobiles, and clothing, to name a few, add to the garbage.

How did America get to this point? Slade charts the history of obsolescence, explaining its various forms-technological, psychological, and planned-and calls it "a uniquely American invention" (3). "Not only did we invent disposable products, ranging from diapers to cameras to contact lenses," he writes, "but we invented the very concept of disposability itself, as a necessary precursor to our rejection of tradition and our promotion of progress and change" (4). As technological innovation increases, as things look outdated, and as manufacturers construct items with limited life-spans so as to force consumers to buy more, Americans throw things away at an alarming rate, leaving Slade to ponder this question: "What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? …

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