Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Way of the Future: Planned Decrepitude

I used to take my photographs with an Olympus digital camera. I don't anymore, because I dropped that camera on a hard concrete floor in Los Angeles and it has been nonfunctional ever since. Fixing it was out of the question - I don't think digital cameras today are made to be fixed. If I had had the time and inclination to send that camera in to the Olympus Corporation for repair, I would not have been surprised to receive an entirely new camera. It's one of the scourges of the modern economic landscape: planned obsolescence. Modern devices are not only not built to last, but are frequently built to not last. Everyone reading this probably has a planned obsolescence story, and the trope of a device breaking the day (or the minute) after its warranty expires is frequently used in comedy.

No model lasts forever, though, and this model in particular is one that I can easily see flailing in the twenty-first century - at least in the West - as situations and cultural viewpoints shift. I believe it's plausible that in the coming decades there'll be a shift, and just as we turned away from the "build to last" philosophy in the mid-twentieth century, we may yet turn away from planned obsolescence in the twenty-first. The big question is what will replace it. My idea? Planned decrepitude.

To understand planned decrepitude, you also have to take into account another development that has the potential to radically influence the twenty-first century and set it apart from the twentieth - distributed manufacturing. Where manufacturing from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the present day has been focused in large, specialized factories, the advent of the 3D printer - a device capable of manufacturing objects by "printing" multiple discrete layers of material - suggests a future where industry leaves the factories and enters the commons. While 3D printers are generally confined to businesses because of their expense, the same was broadly true of computers as recently as the mid-1970s, before the Apple I and Commodore PET hit the market. I think it's plausible that general-purpose 3D printers could be easily affordable by the average consumer by, say, 2040 - and with that, we would be set for a cultural shift.

The idea of planned decrepitude begins with the idea that many people have this capacity for in-home manufacturing of small items and goes from there, and where planned obsolescence operates on the assumption that anything broken will simply be replaced, planned decrepitude takes a different tack - that anything broken can be repaired, and that it will need to be repaired multiple times, in multiple ways, over the product's lifespan. In a society of planned decrepitude, devices would be built in such a way that anyone could repair them - as easily as screwing in a new lightbulb, as long as it's technically possible.

Under this philosophy, the companies would make the lion's share of their money from the sale of replacement parts. Imagine this - it's a fine day in 2050 when the redundant melacortz ramistat in your isopalavial interface goes on the fritz. In 2010 you would have to go to the store and get a new interface, but you are a canny and seasoned consumer OF THE FUTURE! Your 3D printer has an internet connection, and with it you're able to purchase a one-time license from the manufacturer to print a new ramistat. Once it's taken shape in the printer, it's easy as anything to click it in where it needs to go, and you're once again interfacing isopalavially without ever having to leave the house. Score!
Of course, when the replacement ramistat breaks down - whether planned obsolescence or planned decrepitude, there's not much room for hopeful "ifs" - you'll have to buy another license to print another replacement. This is one of the manifestations of the role intellectual property will have in the twenty-first century. Sure, you could always spend a while searching and print a free, open-source ramistat, assuming that in 2050 our creative liberties have not been eroded to a point where that is impossible. The manufacturers wouldn't like it, though. You'd probably see things reminiscent of those damn ads HP is running now to try to convince people not to buy non-HP toner, because only HP toner is as pure as the blood of the Lamb. Or something.

Admittedly, this is just one possibility, one that for me arose from the intersection of 3D printing, planned obsolescence, and the rising importance of intellectual property. When I talked about the idea to my roommate last night, he thought it was unlikely - but not implausible. Ultimately, that's all the future is: a series of events that, if you went back in time and described to an average person on the street, would be dismissed as rubbish science fiction.

"Computers in everyone's phone but no cities on the moon? Come on, get real!"

No comments:

Post a Comment