May 062013

Planned obsolescence

In the 1960s, Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, which surprised and shocked people because it revealed that in the US, companies were deliberately producing products with a short lifespan. It was called planned obsolescence and it was designed to keep the wheels of industry turning so that the mass unemployment in the Great Depression of the 1930s would never occur again. This theme was taken up by Giles Slade in his book of 2006 called Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. However, by this date it wasn’t done to keep people at work but to ensure that the US won the Cold War, which it did in 1990. That little known story is told in Chapter 8 of Slade’s book.

In the 1970s and 1980s the USSR needed microchips and computers in order to exploit its vast reserves of oil and gas to earn the foreign currency it badly needed. A US embargo was denying them the necessary technology, but then Gus Weiss came up with an ingenious idea: allow the Soviet agents to succeed in obtaining what they needed but make sure they bought specially doctored microchips. These looked like the real thing but had inbuilt obsolescence. (Weiss was a White a White House policy adviser on technology, intelligence and economic affair and worked on national security.)

And so they were produced and the USSR was allowed to get them. The chips had inbuilt obsolescence of a kind that included sudden catastrophic malfunctioning, such as instructing a pump suddenly to work at a pressure far higher than a pipeline could withstand. The result was a series of spectacular explosions, some so large that they were observed by satellites. One failure burst an oil pipeline, creating a lake more than 10 kilometres long and 2 metres deep before it was brought under control. This industrial sabotage ensured the USSR lost the Cold War says Slade. Maybe it did.

Made to Break is both entertaining and thought provoking, but somewhat unsatisfying in that it doesn’t say whether planned obsolescence is still part of everyday life. I suspect it’s no longer needed, unless of course it’s why we always seem to be endlessly replacing equipment, not because it doesn’t function, but because newer and better alternatives are always being launched.