15 November 2010


C30, C60, C90 gone… Nobody uses magnetic tape anymore. Beta-max video recorders, remember those? Laser Discs?
As I sit in my flat watching the latest Blu-Ray disc on my widescreen LED TV, I can’t help but worry about where we are going. I’m no Luddite. I embrace technology, I want the latest, the fastest, the slickest and the best. But in a world where landfill sites are among the largest man made structures on the planet, observable from high earth orbit with the naked eye, I am forced to consider the record players, video recorders, games consoles and computers that have been discarded en-route to my acquiring the lovely entertainment system that sits before me.

We live in a throwaway society. Consumerism is driven by this fact. The objects that litter our homes, that have become intrinsic parts of our daily lives, have all been designed with a finite lifespan. There is a term for all of this, “Planned Obsolescence”. Brook Stevens (American Industrial Designer) defined it back in 1954 as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." Everything we consume, that has been designed, has been designed with this in mind.

Buy, buy, buy, bye-bye. Come again soon. Our rampant consumption has gotten out of hand. We are digging ourselves into a hole that is filling up all too rapidly with our cast offs, and it doesn’t look like we are going to change our habits. So where do we go from here?

Well we try to design ourselves out of this mess. Our obsession with continual progressive development leads us to believe that the science and technology that shaped the products that enrich our daily lives, the same technology that we happily throw away each day, will come to our aid. We recycle a bit more (but only just a bit). We strive for efficiency. We adopt cleaner sources of energy and install renewable technologies on our building. This is very commendable, but is this really the solution? Is this the right direction or is this simply a distraction?

There are other forms of obsolescence at work that we need to consider. There’s “Technical Obsolescence”. As our technology develops, these expensive, energy generating devices will be superseded. Better, more advanced technologies will take their place. Our current technologies will become less popular, less marketable, and as a result the manufacturers will cease production. Spares and replacement parts will become difficult to locate, leading to the next stage, “Functional Obsolescence”. What is the lifespan of these machines and devices? When parts are no longer available, and our wind turbines become redundant, will they simply add to the landfill?

Our rose-tinted view of these ecological add-ons is completely understandable. Turbines and solar panels are highly visual. They are the obvious choice, the easy choice. They are symbols of hope. Symbols that demonstrate society has woken up to the fact that something needs to be done before it is too late. But short-term technological solutions, reliant on long-term maintenance are not going to be the answer to our problems. Instead of relying on machines to counteract what we’ve done to the environment, we need to work with the environment. Surely more emphasis needs to be placed on ‘passive’ solutions, on the design of buildings that can retain or expel heat without the requirement for complex machinery.

After all, whilst our technology will continue to develop, the fundamental laws of physics are not going to change any day soon.

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