Disposable Personality

The story of planned obsolescence is old and familiar, a cornerstone of the critique of consumerism since the advent of mass production and the establishment of shopping as a leisure activity rather than a chore. It appears in John Kenneth Galbraith’s assessment of the “affluent society” and received an alarmist, muckraking treatment in The Waste Makers, by Vance Packard, a journalist who rose to prominence with his ominous expos√© of psychological advertising, The Hidden Persuaders. Giles Slade’s Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America is a recent look at how the concept has evolved and been deployed historically by American industry.

The main idea behind planned obsolescence is that we consumers, for purely artificial reasons drummed into our heads by advertisers, are induced to buy things we don’t need and dispose of things that are still perfectly useful. Why would this plot be perpetrated against us? As Slade tells it, the expansion of industry in the 19th century brought with it the specter of overproduction, which seemed to many to be responsible for the Depression. (Obviously these folks took no comfort in Say’s law, which holds that supply creates its own demand.)

In order to get consumers to repeatedly purchase the same items, and thus keep workers employed in making these items and extracting the surplus value they created, workers needed to be convinced that what they already owned had become obsolete by offering a “new and improved” version. Of course, touted technological improvements were often specious, and most improvements are entirely stylistic: as a quintessential example, Slade traces how GM pioneered styling in autos to steal market share from Ford, which stubbornly built durable cars.

If we regard fashion improvements as superfluous by definition and are skeptical of the utility of most technological improvements, then planned obsolescence becomes virtually indefensible, particularly when you consider the environmental crisis being brought on by heedless and wasteful energy consumption. Planned obsolescence can be regarded as a material manifestation of capitalist logic, the exhortation to make things new regardless of whether such change is held to be inevitable or necessary. But for those who champion capitalism’s dynamism, planned obsolescence is a way to unleash creative potential that might otherwise have gone untapped.

If we are brought to want something new, we believe our life has been beneficially expanded, not manipulated or channeled toward frivolity. The cyclical demand for novelty is not onerous but inspiring; it prompts us to combat entropy and inertia and focus our thinking on the manifold ways we can improve things at the margins. Even if we wouldn’t necessarily demand fashion or technological improvements, even if we are convinced to appreciate these niceties only after the fact, we still do appreciate them, as our susceptibility to these methods implies. The “creative destruction” of capitalism doesn’t permit us to languidly tolerate dreariness and inconvenience; instead we have a self-interested incentive to seek small ways to provide benefits to many, the extent of which can ultimately be measured in the profits we earn for our efforts.

When considering planned obsolescence, it’s also worth asking just who can presume to judge what is truly useful and which consumer needs are authentic. Far from being objective, these are intensely political questions that ultimately boil down to who will have the power and the right to circumscribe those desires other people intend to regard as natural. It’s no more inherent a longing to want to squeeze every last mile out of an engine than it is to yearn for new clothes every season. We might assume that all rational actors would champion durability and want to avoid wastefulness, but then we must argue away the signaling value of conspicuous dissipation. What may seem like an inefficient use of resources may actually be a quite efficient way of securing status. Thus arguments against planned obsolescence can quickly be made to seem like a call for the impossible task of ending all signaling efforts and status differentiation itself. Only a pie-in-the-sky utopian would dream of such a thing, and we all know that such egalitarian socialism is impossible anyway — the collapse of the Soviet Union “proved” that.

In criticizing planned obsolescence, not only must a would-be critic tacitly agree with the patronizing assumption that ninny consumers are being duped by all-powerful marketers into behaving like craving, silly mindless fools, but inevitably one must question consumers’ ability to understand themselves and condemn their prerogative to communicate whatever they want to about themselves. When someone chucks a perfectly functioning cell phone, it’s not because they have been deceived into being wasteful, but because they have come to the conclusion that a new phone will give them extra functionality and help them better convey who they think they are. To question that choice, I have to start by arguing that I know better than they what they want and who they are. In other words, it takes on the qualities of a taste argument.

My guess is that most consumers are not especially reflexive about their tastes and simply enjoy what they consume. Whatever rationale drives their taste has become completely automatic, and they waste no time with self-consciousness about what the tastes mean. But that doesn’t mean there is no rationale whatsoever and that they are mindless sheep consuming whatever they are told, mindlessly responding to advertising hype. I sometimes find that assumption very seductive, because once I’ve decided that someone else’s consumption is “mindless”, I can exempt myself from being a sheep myself. Drawing this condescending conclusion makes one’s taste for things “out of the mainstream” (be it for silent film or Satanic metal) automatically seem a sign of higher consciousness and allows one to indulge in some deep solipsistic thinking about why he holds such decidedly non-automatic preferences. I’ve come up with countless interpretations of my own love of bubblegum music or bridge or Baudrillard books and then tried to sell these as proof of my vast analytic prowess and the superiority of my nonconformity — thus narcissism becomes a sign of genius.

Much of what could be considered to be wasteful in what we produce — e.g., fashion innovation — is that which allows people to project their identity, which in our individualist culture has come to seem an inalienable right. Yet as much as we talk about shopping constructing and signaling identity, it is also at the same time a self-annihilating process in which we admit at some deep level that we are willing to conform our desires to ones anticipated in us by manufacturers that know nothing about us, and to the desires of thousands or millions of others who are making the same admission by buying the same product. When we enter consumer society, we surrender or suspend much of the pretense of our uniqueness; then we struggle to get it back in the process of consumption. One way to do this is to build arguments for our tastes, to try to find a unique reason for being a fan of Justin Timberlake’s. (But really, there must be better ways for me to distinguish myself than that.)

When I defend my tastes I usually have myself convinced that I’m talking about the cultural products in question rather than myself. I’d probably get pretty defensive if challenged, or if someone told me these were ultimately arbitrary. Taste is a crucial tool for self-definition within a mass culture — it differentiates one while simultaneously making a case for one’s belonging to a group; it lets you conform and be different at the same time, which resolves one of the fundamental contradictions we confront. Making taste sacrosanct protects us from contemplating the unsolvable dilemma of how to partake of social benefits (e.g., everything that commercial culture produces without having us specifically in mind) without dissolving into the crowd. Taste also masks the ways in which the limitless freedom we are promised in theory is actually curtailed. The realm of aesthetic preference is our cultural system for protecting our sense of autonomy (even if it is illusory).

Arguments about personal taste are inevitably about the participants seeking recognition for their individuality; by persuading someone else to concede our taste, we vindicate our right to our own opinions. The tragedy is that we are ever convinced that we don’t already have that right. It’s in this light that it’s worth considering the psychological ramifications of planned obsolescence. Shifting discussion to the inherent quality of, say, purposely disposable music (i.e., arguing that something about the song itself has made it popular or great rather than the conditions in which it was produced and distributed) masks its disposability, and more important, ours as well.


In his book about planned obsolescence, Slade refers to Christine Fredrick, one of the pioneers of gender-targeted advertisement. She devised a list of three “telltale habits of mind” that all consumers should be induced to cultivate, which Slade paraphrases this way:

(1) A state of mind which is highly suggestible and open; eager and willing to take hold of anything new either in the shape of a new invention or new designs or styles or ways of living.

(2) A readiness to ‘scrap’ or lay aside an article before its natural life of usefulness is completed, in order to make way for the newer and better thing.

(3) A willingness to apply a very large share of one’s income, even if it pinches savings, to the acquisition of the new goods or services or way of living.

I don’t think it’s too cynical to say that this defines the meaning of life for those in a consumer society — do whatever you can to remake yourself in a new and improved way with the aid of products that one can readily fantasize about and through. The degree to which you are “countercultural” is the degree to which you consciously resist these tenets. (And the degree to which we think we disobey these tenets but reveal nonetheless how deeply we have internalized them makes us faux countercultural — makes us hipsters.)

Photo from AddisonSteele.com

In Populuxe, a study of ’50s design, Thomas Hine suggests that the emphasis on disposability and portability and convenience helped call into being to a new “flexible personality” — this would be the kind of person who would cheerfully adopt a new wardrobe if it were prescribed by Harper’s Bazaar, or a new city if bosses moved her there. The push-button, portable, streamlined goods of the era provided material basis for this new personality, embodying and naturalizing an approach to life that values convenience and novelty over tradition and continuity. Technological innovations in consumer products have only served to further these values, so that we overwhelm ourselves with more novelty and immediacy and access to one another than we can comfortably process.

What we regard as convenient is that which divorces us from commitment to longer-term plans in favor of spontaneity, which is fetishized as an adjunct to novelty, even though the two have little to do with each other. Convenience is another word for the systematic breakdown of identity continuity. We see convenience in those things that implicitly tell us not to worry about consistency or commitment to a self-concept — those things in which the previous generation of critics spotted planned obsolescence. We think these things are convenient because they tell us we don’t have to embody character in action, but can simply adopt by buying the right accessories whatever personality we want.

The conveniences enabled by technology facilitate the disposable personality, the natural extension of the flexible personality. A disposable personality is only as deep as the shifting array of fashionable consumer goods that we use to constitute it. We assuage the continual threat of obsolescence by continually changing, refreshing ourselves like an email inbox. With identity detached from the anchors of family and community and geography and profession that once gave it a permanent shape, the contours of personality open up to the cycles of fashion, and one is expected to be a certain kind of person to participate in the zeitgeist, to not feel excluded. (This is how dispositional humors, once regarded as an inborn matter of bodily fluids — one’s black bile and phlegm and whatnot — have come to seem like trends: the insistence that irony was a ’90s trend, for instance.) Technology has extended media into every waking moment of our lives, which keeps us feeling connected to that zeitgeist. We need never be in a situation when we can’t broadcast the newest iteration of ourselves in response to some urgent fear that we our becoming moribund.

Karl Marx argued in The Communist Manifesto that the climate of instability created by capitalism’s “creative destruction” would inevitably lead to its downfall.

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his, real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

But the chaos of these “real conditions” are given a positive spin in material culture by the twist of planned obsolescence, which implies that transience and the decimation of established, comforting traditions is actually an openness to spontaneity, which is more authentic and fulfilling. The disorienting sense that “all that is solid melts into air” is turned into something to celebrate. Novelty becomes an end in and of itself, an alibi for capitalism’s relentlessly churning economic engine and the upheaval it inevitably wreaks. This message has a democratic appeal to it as well, seeming to do away with inherited privilege in favor of what money can buy or better yet, what coolness our ingenuity can sniff out.

The disposable personality perceives himself as being expansive, believing that the sheer quantity of variegated experience deepens him. He is like a collector, but of attitudes instead of things. He (or, more precisely, his culture) has made an attitude into a thing. Personality traits are separated from the scenarios and activities that evince them and become things one can own and display on demand like knick-knacks, through adopting proper postures. The continuous identity is refuted; there’s no need to justify how you can get from one attitude to another. I could wear a Che Guevara shirt one day and a Brooks Brothers suit the next without any cognitive dissonance. In having the freedom to become anybody, with the expectation to try to be anybody, we aspire toward being nobody, with no history, with no defining features but the pile of things we own. Anything we can’t purchase is jettisoned from the self-concept. Inevitably we come to expect to throw away everything we acquire eventually; we don’t want saddle ourselves with the permanent self long-term ownership would give.

This is why it feels so good to purge ourselves of unnecessary things. It’s always a rewarding feeling when I drop off Trader Joe’s bags full of junk at the Goodwill — though I usually end up buying more junk on the same visit. Sometimes nothing seems as satisfying as the experience of using things up, of finally extracting the potential of some object I’ve acquired and then getting rid of it. It’s hard not to think in these terms — of not merely using things but of using them up, of extinguishing them, of sucking them dry. The idea that something could be useful without being used up can seem like a scam, a lie akin to a perpetual motion machine. When I become conscious of this, I try to resist; I begin to romanticize getting pleasure from the same thing, listening to John, Wolf King of L.A. over and over again or glorying in playing Freecell repeatedly. I think about rereading books I love; sometimes I’ll even thumb through them, suffused with warm wistfulness — ah, that first time I read For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign….

I might glorify inexhaustible resources, but I don’t trust them; they are fairy tales, mirages of nostalgia. Eventually we begin to think of other people as resources to be used up, that this is the honest and fair way of appraising them, and we attempt to extract whatever use we can out of them and then discard them, whether they are in the labor force or are our intimates — though the “purity” of the latter may sometimes be constructed as an escape from the former, the way we feel obliged to use people in production, to manage them as disposable things. In essence we start to plan for obsolescence with regard to the people in our lives; we regard this as something inevitable that we must “be realistic” about.

So I romanticize privation because it seems to refute the realities and vicissitudes of disposability, but in truth only an ersatz cultural privation is conceivable to me — what it would be like to have only a few records to play. I can’t imagine true deprivation or isolation, true exclusion from the zeitgeist, and thus I can’t truly imagine myself beyond the horizon of disposability. I accept my own interchangeability as the price to be paid in order for society to recognize me at all.

Photo from ManChic.com