How to be #1 in the world and still be a loser

 

On one level, Giles Slade’s new book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, can be read as the played-straight history of the demise of things like the paper shirt front, tailfins on cars, and the pinball machine. Slade ranges considerably wider than his title lets on, however, and raises fundamental questions about the American culture of consumption.

The book is in large part a fascinating intellectual history of how marketers demolished the American tradition of thrift. Henry Ford, for instance, made his name by designing a rustic yet dependable car that would just about last forever. Then he was almost unmade when General Motors found that a little style went a long way in luring customers to its showrooms. The truly brilliant discovery was that by updating the style, if not the substance, of its cars every year, GM could create obsolescence on demand and sell a never-ending stream of cars.

With that, America was off to the races. In 1958, obsolescence pundit Brooks Stevens declaimed, “We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then next year we deliberately introduce something that will make those products old-fashioned, out of date, obsolete. We do that for the soundest reason: to make money.”

One of the best chapters in the book is a madcap, revisionist-history riff on the Cold War arms race as the ultimate in perpetual obsolescence — or, as Eisenhower put it, “the never-ending replacement of older weapons with new ones.” (Slade also tells the story of what may be history’s leading example of deliberately engineered technological failure: how, in a stratagem worth of James Bond’s Q, the CIA surreptitiously passed off some bad microchips to the Soviets and blew a Siberian gas-pipeline project sky-high.)

Once you read Made to Break, it’s hard not to notice — more often than you’d like — the feeling that Brooks Stevens called “the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”