December 10, 2011 2:24 PM   Subscribe

The Light Bulb Conspiracy is a documentary about disposable printers, light bulbs and everything else, investigating the implications of the business model and industrial design philosophy of Planned Obsolescence that drives and shapes our economy.
posted by loquacious (43 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
There was a similar documentary in 1988, which I believe your title is alluding to.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:42 PM on December 10, 2011

Thanks for this, can't wait until I have time to dig in! One of the MeFi posts that's really stuck with me is this one about a bulb installed in 1901 and still going strong.
posted by yellowbinder at 2:43 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not a Bright Idea
In 1845, French economist Frederic Batistat drafted a petition to the French government, ostensibly from candlemakers and "generally everything connected with lighting." That petition, translated here, satirically requested that the government ban the Sun -- after all, doing that would increase demand in the candlemakers' products and make them all much richer. But being satire, the petition was by no means real -- in 1845, there simply was no conspiracy of those in the lighting business to do anything whatsoever.

That would have to wait until December 23, 1924.

On that date, a group of light bulb and lamp manufacturers, including General Electric, Phillips, Osram, and most of the other major lighting companies of the time got together with a plan -- not to block out the sun, but certainly to reduce the amount of light available. The group formed a Swiss corporation called Phoebus -- "Phoebus S.A. Compagnie Industrielle pour le Développement de l'Éclairage" -- or, colloquially, the Phoebus Cartel.

The group entered into to a number of agreements aimed at increasing their profits at the expense of consumers. In order to limit price competition, the cartel divided the market into home territories, with each manufacturer receiving exclusive domain over its home country, absent from competition. Some other areas were allotted out to some of the companies, again absent from competition. Together, these ensured lower costs for the lighting manufacturers -- less money in marketing, etc. -- and of course, higher revenues, given the de facto monopolies created by the cartel in those areas.

But the Phoebus Cartel did not stop there. Light bulbs straddle the line between being durable goods (intended for re-use) and disposable ones (which are replaced often). A typical incandescent light bulb has a lifespan of about 1,000 hours of use -- a lifespan the cartel wanted to keep in place. To do so, the cartel standardized light bulbs, making the incandescent bulb (such as the one pictured above) common and expected. Further, the cartel members allegedly agreed to limit the amount of money invested in research and development, in order to make sure that better, more efficient lighting did not kill off their golden product.

The Phoebus Cartel was successful with limited interference for roughly 15 years, with the biggest challenge to it coming from a small group (another cartel, perhaps) of Northern European light bulb manufacturers which refused to participate. In 1939, when World War II broke out, the cartel collapsed as the war prevented the continuance of these types of cross-border agreements.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:44 PM on December 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Moore's Law: If your laptop from 15 years ago still worked, would you even want it? Would anyone? If you bought a Diamond Rio -- the first consumer MP3 player -- are you upset that it has stopped working?

I don't know about lightbulbs. But because of rapid technological change, a lot of consumer goods are going to be technological antiques in 3-4 years. To build them to last longer than that is waste -- is putting valuable resources to a worthless use. Like ordering your Big Mac with double styrofoam.
posted by grobstein at 2:56 PM on December 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

In that vein of ultra-durable consumer goods, I always wonder about the landfill impact of things like Gorilla Glass and anti-bacterial plastics that are being used. Ostensibly those things make their decay take longer, which in my mind increases the landfill impact.
posted by msbutah at 2:59 PM on December 10, 2011

In the 80s I grew up with a heavy lug of a vacuum cleaner (looks like Kirby 500 series based on wikipedia/google info)... I think they got it for their wedding present in 1959. The last of the line model for that series, it seems.

Well, it was still going 30 years later. I bought a Dyson in the mid 2000s and I don't expect that piece of shit plastic thing to last 30 years, and god help me if the hoover we bought before that lasted a whole month.

Yeah - heavy steel cleaners are not a pleasant thing to be pushing around, but damnit if that thing didn't work.
posted by symbioid at 4:08 PM on December 10, 2011

Grobstein: Yes with computers it is a waste. However, with skillets, houses, toilet parts, vacuum cleaners, etc., there are no technological advances that will make me regret buying something that would never break.

The key, I think, is to make technology that can be upgraded. That's the difference between a laptop and a desktop, for instance. I can put in more ram, new gpu, etc, to keep it working good, without spending for a whole new system.
posted by rebent at 4:09 PM on December 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have my mom's Oster blender. I don't know when she got it, but I certainly remember using it 26 years ago. Except for one speed, it still works. I was disappointed that the glass threads on the carafe broke, but happy that I could buy an exact replacement at my local hardware store (of all places!). It's nice to have sharp blade too. So screw you, planned obsolescence. I prefer tools that last a lot longer, thanks.
posted by plinth at 4:16 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it just me who suspects that manufacturers and retailers may still be influencing the marketing of LED lightbulbs? For the last two or three years it has been possible to buy an LED replacement for, say, a 50 Watt MR16 halogen lightbulb. The replacement will kick out just as much light and much less heat; it uses about a 10th as much power and it will last about 30 times longer. For most people this should make it a clear winner in terms of economics and convenience. And in fact this type of lightbulb is widely available to buy online. But if I visit large hardware stores they invariably seem to stock only the crappy, under-bright (and yet still expensive) first generation LED bulbs.
posted by rongorongo at 4:25 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

rebent: and the fact that they're doing it on fucking purpose. They're wasting resources and overcharging consumers so we can put MORE garbage in the landfill.

We're on our third Teflon frying pan in the last 16 years. This is a perfect example of an item that's expensive in terms of energy and pollution to make, difficult to recycle, and hardly lasts long enough to justify the marketing. I'm looking at YOU, Jamie Oliver.

Plus I'm an idiot for buying another one after the second.
posted by sneebler at 4:29 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not all the way through the film yet but I have to say that I've felt that way about inkjet printers for years. Since 1999 I've had two seperate laser printers (both under $100) and they both still work flawlessly. I go through one cartridge a year. I switched to Compact Fluorescent Bulbs 4 years ago, haven't had to change one since. I'm still using the same TV I was using in 1996 (this thing will never die, I don't need HD and it's large screen and perfect for netflix, youtube, etc).

I *did* fall for those 'reusable tupperware' things from ziploc, glad, etc. They *are* reusable... but not as long as the tupperware my grandmother still has.
posted by one4themoment at 4:50 PM on December 10, 2011

This old post on the green, "Cheap but Bombproof," offers a bunch of examples of lasting objects.

My favorite indestructable is my cast iron skillet ($3 at a rummage sale; it turned out to be a Griswold, and is north of 50 years old). I have watched my husband's Teflon skillets come and go, but my Griswold is still making perfect pancakes. (Also good for tossing.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:53 PM on December 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've never owned a printer for this very reason. It's a money pit, you constantly have to buy ink, then it breaks.
It's sickening to think of all this plastic shit that gets made and turned into trash so quickly. Where the hell do they expect it all to go? It doesn't degrade.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:35 PM on December 10, 2011

I would like to see an automobile manufacturer offer replacement parts at cost, with standard man hour fees. The campaign could theoretically drive a lot of business, put more of their cars in good condition on the road, and employ hundreds of thousands of people doing the work. But it could take away from the production and selling of new cars, so is highly unlikely to happen.
posted by LoudMusic at 5:40 PM on December 10, 2011

Started off really liking the premise (mostly because it's something I believe in) but I think they really missed the boat on how so much of today's 'planned obsolescence' is about pricing, and I'd have liked to see more on that.

A couple times they touch on items like 'Suits' which you would get married in and be burried in, and you can still get that quality today! But you're not going to get it at a price you like. (I have no evidence but I suspect that -) Suits were likely something you saved up a significant time for, and if you did so today you can still get that same value.

Really wish they had touched on that aspect more, or focused more on the printer/lightbulb thing where it really is planned, and less on some of the other things where it's consumer desire for cheap items that brings not planned obsolescence but um... cheap items.
posted by one4themoment at 5:40 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Plus I'm an idiot for buying another one after the second.
Calphalon has a lifetime warrantee. Yes it wears out eventually, but the replacement arrives swiftly.
posted by plinth at 5:41 PM on December 10, 2011

From Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence [PDF] by Bernard London, 1932:
In the present inadequate economic organization of society, far too much is staked on the unpredictable whims and caprices of the consumer. Changing habits of consumption have destroyed property values and opportunities for employment. The welfare of society has been left to pure chance and accident.

In a word, people generally, in a frightened and hysterical mood, are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before the depression. In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity.

They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete. All business, transportation, and labor had adjusted themselves to the prevailing habits of the American people. Perhaps, prior to the panic, people were too extravagant; if so, they have now gone to the other extreme and have become retrenchment-mad.


In the future, we must not only plan what we shall do, but we should also apply management and planning to undoing the obsolete jobs of the past. This thought constitutes the essence of my plan for ending the depression and for restoring affluence and a better standard of living to the average man.

My proposal would put the entire country on the road to recovery, and eventually restore normal employment conditions and sound prosperity. My suggested remedy would provide a permanent source of income for the Federal Government and would relieve it for all time of the difficulties of balancing its budget.

Briefly stated, the essence of my plan for accomplishing these much-to-be-desired-ends is to chart the obsolesce of capital and consumption goods at the time of their production. I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture, when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence definitely known by the consumer.

After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally “dead” and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.
Clearly we need to discard the Old and patriotically embrace the New once again: it may be the only way to keep the Ponziconomy rolling.
posted by cenoxo at 5:47 PM on December 10, 2011

I have my mom's Oster blender. I don't know when she got it, but I certainly remember using it 26 years ago. Except for one speed, it still works. I was disappointed that the glass threads on the carafe broke, but happy that I could buy an exact replacement at my local hardware store (of all places!). It's nice to have sharp blade too. So screw you, planned obsolescence. I prefer tools that last a lot longer, thanks.

Just keep an eye on those old, vintage kitchen electrics. I picked a blender up second-hand and had a nice near-death scare thanks to some worn wiring.

As for cast-iron, I picked up a Lodge Logic from target (yes i know griswold is awesome), and it's the best pan I've had the joy to use. I literally cook everything on that pan, from cornbread to pancakes to a skillet cookie, which by the way was amazing.
posted by kurosawa's pal at 7:16 PM on December 10, 2011

There's plenty of products out there that will last decades, if not more. The reality is that the vast majority of people do not want to pay for them, and instead would rather pay for cheap versions that they fully know will not last them more than 5 years. Why is Ikea popular with students? For this very reason. Why do you think that bookcase costs $49? It's not a family heirloom.

Look, I agree that printers that have a chip in that stop them from working after a certain date regardless of whether they are in fact broken is a very bad thing.. but that's very different than manufacturing a cheaply made product and selling it at a low price to a customer that buys it precisely because it is cheap. Those are two very different things, and while I was looking forward to watching this documentary, I was disappointed that it conflated the two.

Same goes for teh segment on electronics dumping in Africa. yes, that is very bad and could (and should) be effectively regulated to prevent it. But that's a very different problem than the reality that computers double in power and halve in cost on a regular basis, and so upgrading is a natural course for anyone who wants to take advantage of new capabilities. Again, conflating the two with a spooky piano score and an ominous voiceover kind of does a disserve to a real issue.
posted by modernnomad at 8:03 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the 80s I grew up with a heavy lug of a vacuum cleaner (looks like Kirby 500 series

I have my mom's Oster blender.

I have the best damned Zenith TV from the late '70's. 19" color. This thing just won't die, the picture is great. I have to mate it with a VCR to tune in the cable channels, as it has the chunk-chunk channel dials. The on/off/volume rotary is getting a bit hinky, just needs a squirt of that rheostat-cleaner stuff. Thanks to the Zenith factory that made my TV. I've no reason to ditch it, it's my desk TV, as in it sits just beyond my desk alongside my monitor. I love this old TV, and I won't recycle it until it dies.

I *did* fall for those 'reusable tupperware' things from ziploc, glad, etc.

I reuse these every day. I haven't thrown any away, after a couple learning experiences. They're durable if you don't abuse them in the microwave, which they're made for but will still get messed up if overcooked alongside food. Tupperware is a different creature, it's built to last but folks tend to put that plastic in places it shouldn't go, like a microwave. (Speaking from ruining Grandma's Tupperware bowl, I don't know if they've changed the plastic formula.)

I use my 'reusable tupperware' to cover defrosting things, or reheating things in the microwave, to speed the process and catch the moisture so things don't dry out. Great for cooking potatoes in the micro.
posted by wallabear at 8:29 PM on December 10, 2011

My Diamond Rio still works, thank you very much.
posted by ikahime at 8:53 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Does anyone know if there's a way to legitimately purchase this film, like on DVD or anything? I'd really like to have it around in a less compressed version (ideally without the double hardsubs, if possible).
posted by trackofalljades at 9:06 PM on December 10, 2011

Funny story- I got about 20 minutes into this video when my partner called me to tell me that there was something wrong with the car. The plastic fastener on the plastic underside protector on the left hand side of the car had popped off, and the protector was dragging on the ground, completely shredding it. I just hope it isn't going to cost too much to fix...
posted by Joe Chip at 9:23 PM on December 10, 2011

I don't know about lightbulbs. But because of rapid technological change, a lot of consumer goods are going to be technological antiques in 3-4 years. To build them to last longer than that is waste -- is putting valuable resources to a worthless use. Like ordering your Big Mac with double styrofoam.

I'll dispute this, on two fronts.

Older machines might be less useful as general computing devices, but they could be repurposed as specific-use information appliances with just a change of OS, if they still worked. I remember listening to mp3s on my old 200mhz Pentium system. I still listen to mp3s, but the hardware itself is kaput. If it weren't I could press it into service as a dedicated audio player.

Second, machines don't become obsolete as quickly now as they used to. Windows XP is still kicking around eight years after release, and Windows 7 will run on much more modest hardware, relatively speaking, than Windows 95 did. If my old laptop hadn't stopped working entirely I'd still be using it, it'd still be perfectly capable as a web browsing machine. This is partly because processor speed has topped out as a source of performance improvement in favor of multi-core machines, and partly because of the rise of a super-low-end of the market in the form of netbooks and ultra-cheap laptops.

At some point we're going to have to address the fact that we cycle through hardware so rapidly, because much of this stuff doesn't recycle well once it breaks down. The endless hardware upgrade cycle is a primary result of planned obsolescence, enforced by escalating OS system requirements. Of course, building more obsolescence-proof devices would mean fewer sales, which would be seen as trouble in the tech industry, so ultimately the problem is baked into our economic system.
posted by JHarris at 9:41 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

"I just worry that we won't be able to provide the same level of crap that our parents gave us."(1)
posted by stbalbach at 11:07 PM on December 10, 2011

Somebody needs to write a book where they talk about the importance of owning your own tools, so that you can escape the dehumanizing effects of modern industrial specialization and crating your own things, so that you can break the cycle of purchasing faux durable goods that last a few years and make things that your grandchildren will be proud to own.

In fact, that someone is Jessamyn's cousin, Chris Schwarz.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:14 PM on December 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

If it weren't I could press it into service as a dedicated audio player ... and waste more electricity keeping it running than it would take to manufacture and run a dedicated device made from modern technology...
posted by aspo at 11:16 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've still got a Pioneer SA6500-II amplifier that I bought in 1977, a hundred and a half, maybe one-sixty. It still works great. Super-easy to play mp3s through it and why not? Sounds great. Up in the attic, I've still got the box the amp came in, and all the styrofoam inserts to hold it in place; old habit, you keep the box, great to move the stuff in, safe and protected. I moved a lot, young; that amp has moved plenty of times.

Right now the box from the flat screen is up there, too, and all the styrofoam inserts. Though from what I've heard, flat screens don't last long enough that I'll be moving it; we'll see, yes?

Along with that amp, for the tuner I use a Pioneer KP500 Super Tuner. It was my car stereo for a number of years, think I bought it in 1978, now re-purposed as a tuner in my house, using some horses-ass power supply that an old buddy of mine put a fuse or a gate or a diode or a switch or a transistor or whatever the hell you EE guys solder into the line so I can use that damn A/C power supply with this D/C car stereo. (I put the car antenna back behind; let me tell you, I can pick up friggin' Egypt with this thing.)

I also have a Marantz tuner I bought at a resale shop or a garage sale or whatever and it works just swell—it's spiffy! Maybe paid fifteen bucks or twenty-five or whatever. But I like the Super Tuner more, it's considerably smaller and it truly does pick up distant stations really well. Plus it's a kick, having that big luminous green dial thing going. So there you have it.

Speakers have absolutely improved, and I've steady replaced them over the years, though not since the 90's now, they sounded fine then and still do. I think they're made by InterAudio—didn't Bose buy them out? They're made by whoever Bose bought out in the 90s. I'm too lazy to walk over there and see. If/when I get up and go to the kitchen for some more water, I'll give you the scoop; I know you're just dying over there, sweating on this, and I'm surely sorry to have brought you to this state, but as you can see, I'm just not gonna get off my butt.

I let go that monster Sony television a couple years ago when I got my first flat screen, put it on craiglist, the sound didn't work but it was exactly what some kid was looking for, to turn it into some big game machine. I used it for a number of years without sound, used the tuner from the VCR I had, dumped that sound-out into that Pioneer amp, all was well.

Hey, why in the world would I dump my iPod mini? It works great, 4gig isn't much but what, I need more when I'm out on my bike? Come on. I've got tons of accessories for it, too, they were giving the stuff away after the nano came out, I've got a remote and a LED flashlight and a laser pointer and an external battery pack and I don't know what all, I believe I can fly to Pluto with all that shit I've got. Man. I'm on my second battery. Did you know that you can dump the hard drive on those things and replace them with a CF card? As the prices drop to where 32gig CF cards come in a box of cereal I'll put one of those in it, for the hell of it, mostly, but also because it'll about quadruple battery time.

I've got a vacuum cleaner I bought sometime in the early 80s I think, it's a real garbage can, one of those el-cheapo uprights that everybody had back then, the kind you can chase the cat with. I've put that thing together any number of times, fixed it this way and that way, upwards of fourteen thousand new belts on it, and still it spins on and on. It looks sortof like this one but way cheaper and junkier and "harvest gold" to boot—what a pile of crap! The light doesn't work on it but wtf, I never vacuum in the dark. Do you? Well, borrow someone else's vacuum then.

About six months after my little ex-wife and I split the blanket, I bought a four poster oak bed, a really nice antique oak wardrobe, a walnut desk. Yep, you got it—still here. Oak is forever, if you want it to be, and thus far it appears that I do. I've got a small oak clock, too, which is sortof cool, and a buddy here just recently (like two years ago) gave me a small oak dresser, too, and it's cute or whatever but not as nice as the rest of the stuff, I look at it pensively from time to time, think about dumping it, craiglist or whatever.

I've still got a plastic spatula from way back when, and a church key, and a hand can opener that scarce works anymore, some cheapo corn cob holders, the kind with the yellow plastic ends on them, you've seen them in thrift shops. I don't need any of it, but I've kept a few things that her hands have touched, because I'm a sentimental fool. I've made mistakes.

I built my dining room table in the late 1980s using a solid core exterior door covered in white formica with these really thick, cylindrical legs that I made out of PVC plumbing pipe, cut to length, painted black; it's hard to describe but it's super-cool, the top white, the legs black, 8inch diameter, the top about six foot long, three foot wide, it weighs more than you, me, and your mom combined. (Okay, maybe not. But it's heavy, to be sure.) It's not going anywhere anytime soon, I really love it. I've got the top set on a different base right now, to hold paint and brushes and shit but I've kept the legs and will keep the legs.

I've got tons of tools that I've had for decades. I've got a couple of socket sets and wrench sets which I bought in high school, like 1972. Pro Tip: Buy Craftsman tools, from Sears, they mostly don't break but if/when they do, take them back and they give you a new one. Most of mine are the ones I've had since the start, and I've used them to work on every vehicle I've owned, brake jobs, shocks, rear end of one pickup (on the coldest day one Austin winter, which isn't anything like yankee cold for sure but it still sortof sucked), clutches, radiators, stereos, blah blah blah. I put two new 396 motors into a 1969 Chevelle after bolting both of those motors together, that last motor especially an absolute screamer, but Whooops! I wrapped that car around a tree, drunk and stoned and stupid. I pulled the motor and trans and put it into a 1968 Cutless body I bought for $150, it was a real dirtball, a total sleeper, you'd never guess when you pulled up next to it what was in it.

So I've got all those mechanical tools and tons of my construction tools, too; I worked in the trades for years, hung drywall, roofed houses, heating and a/c and sheet metal, miles and miles of gutters, acoustical ceilings, blah blah blah blah. Point is that I've got lots of those tools still; you buy good ones and they last. Though I will confess here that I bought a total piece of shit black and decker circular saw for fifteen bucks at Home Depot or whatever and I've used it now for well over twenty years, I got lucky with it, I've replaced the power cord and about a million blades of course but that's it, mostly. But I've got a Makita screw-gun that I've had since 1981 and I've beat the dogshit out of it and it still absolutely rocks—Makita makes great tools. I've got a set of chisels I bought in 1976 that I hope to have til I croak (again; long story) and I expect that I will. They're sharp as hell, and pretty. I haven't got too many of my fathers tools and that is a real sadness, you bet. I've got one old plane that was his. Some scratch awls. I'm not sure what else, not much, not enough, for sure. I'd give one hell of a lot to have that Milwaukee drill he had for years, thing was big as a Buick and weighed that much too, TONS of torque, snap your arm around fast if/when it got stuck. It disappeared, late in his life he let lots of things drift off, too bad for me.

I DO go on. Damn. Sorry. Anybody in here? Anybody home? Hello? Man...

Trucks. My current truck is a 1996 Ford and I hope to drive it Until The End Of Time. Buy Fords, you can beat 'em to death—I have, a couple of them—and they keep on running down the road.

Guns, obviously, they last forever. I've a shotgun I've had since Jimmie Carter was in the presidency. I'm not going to go on much about guns here, as I know it's not super popular; suffice to say they are forever. I load my own ammo, once you buy that equipment it is also forever.

My bike. A decade now and scratched to shit and beat but it's brand new rebuilt, totally gone through, and good now for another decade. Buy a good bike and you can absolutely beat it to death except not to death because they won't die if it's a good enough bike; don't buy garbage. Buy a bike that's tougher than you are going to be on the bike and you're set. Seats and tires, mostly, and a few chains is what I've gone through up til the rebuild.

Boots. Buy good enough to re-sole, and new heels. I've got a really sweet pair made in Mexico, had them twenty years give or take, a few soles so far. Also, Pro Tip: eBay. Not so much for hiking boots but for cowboy boots hard to beat, so many people buy a pair of boots and then the boots sit in the damn closet until the guys wife gets fussy and then I buy the damn things for a song. And I've got these big monster feet, for you it'll be a piece of cake, they'll have zillions for you.

Want more? I know you don't. I've got more to say—I mean, duh, right?—but not much. And I'm not writing this for you anyways, cuz I know you've given up long, long ago and I can't say I blame you. I'm spitting this out for me, because I like the thread and I like the topic and I loathe planned obsolescence, as you can clearly see, or could clearly see, if you were still reading this and thus were able to take a look.

I'll stop with this: Ann Landers told me that if you buy quality clothing that's not faddish you don't need to buy it again, and I believed her, and have benefited.

posted by dancestoblue at 3:13 AM on December 11, 2011 [11 favorites]

I just bought a new network colour laser printer (for home business/charity work). I paid £800 for it. Alternatives were available from around £300.

Of course, I also ran a TCO calculation based on our past 10 years' usage. After 24 months we break even, relative to the £500-cheaper model. And a bit later we're laughing all the way to the bank. A set of toner carts for the expensive printer costs around £260 and run for 6000 pages ... while the cheap-ass one costs £220 for 1200 pages.

Did I mention our past 10 years' usage? That's because 10 years is how long the printer this one is replacing lasted, and how long I intend to keep the new one running if at all possible. Hence the decision to go for a heavy-duty enterprise-grade printer that is over-spec'd for the job (because the sort of businesses who buy them burn them out in a year) rather than a cheap piece of consumer-grade shit that looks cheap until you cost up the supplies.

See also safety razors: the handle is free, but they claw it back by getting you hooked on the blades.
posted by cstross at 4:54 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

I swapped out to Eco-bulbs last year and tried for six months to ignore the flicker, the blue, the harsh. I've put "incandescent light bulbs" on my Christmas list this year, and feel bad about myself!
posted by thinkpiece at 4:56 AM on December 11, 2011

and waste more electricity keeping it running than it would take to manufacture and run a dedicated device made from modern technology

I'm fairly confident that manufacturing a new player is more energy intensive than keeping the old one in use, not to mention that it requires a whole lot of new minerals to be dug out and processed, while throwing a perfectly working assembly of old ones to the landfill.
posted by Bangaioh at 5:30 AM on December 11, 2011

Not if the old one was a 200MHz pentium desktop pc. Power consumption figures for the whole PC instead of the chip are rare on the net, but the lowest figure I saw was a 160W power supply. On the one hand, it wouldn't necessarily be running full blast, on the other hand, power supplies use more power than they deliver. Let's be conservative here and guess that playing mp3s with this beast uses 100W.

...on the other hand, an ipod nano's battery has 0.39watt-hours and plays music for 24 hours, giving it a power consumption of about 0.016W.

So using the old PC to play mp3s, you're using about 6000 times more electricity than with a current player. Every 48 hours of use burns an extra pound of coal.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:54 AM on December 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

ROU_Xenophobe has the right of it.

Sitting in the next room over from my office there's a perfectly serviceable 2006 Mac Pro tower running OSX 10.5 Leopard Server. It works fine, but it hasn't been switched on for a couple of years and I can't even give the flipping thing away. Why?

Well, it's a 2.0GHz dual processor G5 tower, not an Intel machine. It's about as powerful as a 2010 Core 2 Duo Mac Mini server, so you'd think someone might want to deploy it as a SoHo server box. However, at full chat it guzzles roughly £400-500 in electricity per year: when you turn it on and the cooling fans spool up it blasts hot air halfway across the room. In contrast, the Mac Mini server sips around £15-30 per year in juice. The cost of merely running the G5 tower equals the cost of buying a new, physically smaller, equally powerful machine and running it, amortized over 18 months.

The corollary of Moore's Law is that the cost per MIP-hour of hardware halves every 12-15 months. And sooner or later, when you factor in the cost of electricity (which doesn't drop in step with Moore's Law) the old kit becomes too expensive to justify keeping it running.
posted by cstross at 7:00 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Speakers have absolutely improved, and I've steady replaced them over the years, though not since the 90's now, they sounded fine then and still do.

I generally agree with you, but I'll put my 70s Advent Legacys up against any new speakers in their price range. (And they have beautiful wood cabinets - try finding that anymore.)
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:13 AM on December 11, 2011

Benny Andajetz: "Speakers have absolutely improved, and I've steady replaced them over the years, though not since the 90's now, they sounded fine then and still do.

I generally agree with you, but I'll put my 70s Advent Legacys up against any new speakers in their price range. (And they have beautiful wood cabinets - try finding that anymore.)

Bass response is the biggest piece in it that I've seen (heard, rather), if older speakers even had any bass response; most didn't. Of those that did have a bass response, it was muddy, blurry, they sounded hung over, all of which is a polite way of saying that they sounded like shit. These InterAudio speakers of mine, even fifteen or eighteen years old, they've got great bass response, they thump rather than blur, all through the bass spectrum.

Remember the Bose 901 speakers, the ones with the dorky stands, the speakers you aimed at the walls? I had four of them; they literally had no bass line to them at all, it wasn't that the bass was muddy but rather that it was non-existent.

I'm not saying that your speakers aren't great but most I've come across from then are not, is all.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:49 AM on December 11, 2011

Great little film...but I missed the last 5 minutes because the batteries in my wireless headphones ran out. Fucking irony. Now, where's that battery charger I had...?

Due to some new living circumstances, it's been eye-opening how much stuff it's possible to accumulate. Every purchase I make is evaluated on a ballpark, back-of-napkin version of cstross' TCO calculation for his printer. What's it made of? How long will it last? Are parts replaceable? Can I make replacement parts? I'm wondering right now what I'm going to do with the guts of my mother's computer, which will soon be replaced with the guts of this computer, which will soon be replaced with these little fiddly bits in boxes on my desk.

The other perspective that's recently been introduced to my product purchase metric is, does it look ok? I can appreciate that sentiment, sure, but I cannot value something that looks pretty but is specifically designed to be replaced by whatever marketers decide is supposed to look pretty next year. Those industrial wastelands of broken plastic and shards of electro-board and scuttled hazardous waste (batteries!) are not a fiction. They're there at the end of this film, on the other side of the Atlantic in Ghana's rivers, south into Mexico, floating in the middle of the Pacific. Breaking our planet.

As I've tried to become better at this Total Cost Over Time and sustainability evaluation, it's become clear that access to the tools is a necessary first step towards changing the way we produce our stuff. I could fix this part if I had a soldering iron. Or a big enough clamp. Or a torch welder. Or a laser cutter. But does every person or every household need this kind of tool collection? No. That's the sort of thinking that the video cites as changing consumer culture in the 40's & 50's.

We've concentrated so long on making tons of shit and shipping it around for everyone; now it should be possible to use the shit we've shipped around to make new shit. Even if a product has been designed to fail doesn't mean a non-failtastic design could be made from its remnants. This is why I like bicycle kitchens; people can grab what they need from the 'junk pile', strap it onto their otherwise-functioning bike, and be ready to go! They don't need to have a bike stand at home, or a particular wrench, or even really a lot of expertise. They don't have to buy a new bike because their brake cable snapped. The tools are all at the bike kitchen, and it's staffed by people (often volunteers) who contain the knowledge necessary to do the repair.

It won't be shiny. It probably won't come with any sort of warranty. It won't win any beauty pageants. But it'll work and it'll last and that's all I need.

Sort of like how the orange you get at the farmer's market won't be easy-peel, will probably be chock-full of seeds, and might taste a little sour. But it's still an orange, still delicious, and still acceptable as a delivery system for nutrients and joy. There's been that movement of late to locally source food, and I think it's a good direction to take in other areas as well. Like production. And tool libraries (or bicycle kitchens or fab labs or whatever you want to call 'em) would be a great way to get that going. Let's dig deep into that pile of junk we've been accumulating (or shipping overseas to rot in someone else's river, ugh) and start making stuff again!
posted by carsonb at 10:04 AM on December 11, 2011 [11 favorites]

So using the old PC to play mp3s, you're using about 6000 times more electricity than with a current player

I know, but my point was for how longer should I be using the 200W PC instead of the 0.01W iPod once we factored in the energy and material costs of manufacturing (not just running) the iPod, and the externalised costs of dumping yet another old but still functional PC (not too mention the living conditions of people involved in the supply chain of the new device). One week? One month? One year?

The rationale being that buying an iPod right away would mean, all things being equal, I'd need to buy a replacement one year earlier than if I only bought the iPod on 2012. By speeding up upgrade cycles, I would be consuming more resources, not less, despite what my electrical bill might suggest.
posted by Bangaioh at 10:06 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

We're like the castle of found-fixed-rescued-repurposed. Of furniture and appliances I think pretty much the only things we bought new were our fridge and our washing machine. TV, stove, microwave, food processor, vacuum – all rescued and repaired by my husband. Even the iron is a repaired street find. All furniture found, passed down, or bought second-hand (we did have a old cast off fridge for the longest time, and it was a misery – totally not worth it). We have a great desk that we rescued from the street and stripped a million coats of paint off... that was painful. The top had to be discarded because it was warped from rain, but with a new oak top it's a one-of-a-kind gorgeous beauty.

But what I was actually thinking of is that I have (and use, all the time) my mother-in-law's pressure cooker, which must be about 40 years old (It's even named "DUROmatic!"). Half the time that scares me, but the other half I think, "my god, this thing is a absolute tank – I bet it's way safer than a modern replacement."

Right? Er, maybe not. (I just looked this up.)
Every now and then I am asked about replacement parts for some ancient relic of a pressure cooker that is 40 or 50 years old, even older, dating back to early days of pressure cookery. Every time I'm asked about these old monstrosities I want to scream - "What are thinking!"
I'm thinking maybe I need to give up this particular well-used, well-loved long-life item. o_0
posted by taz at 10:20 AM on December 11, 2011

Not all consumer electronics are durable goods--Amazon loses money on every Kindle sold because they'll make it up on book purchases. Same with printers: inkjets are essentially razor blades that make marks on paper. One of the local geek recycling charities here has a room stacked floor-to-ceiling with crappy inkjet desk printers because it's cheaper to buy a new one than it is to buy a new ink cartridge with integrated print head.

There are tons of awful chemicals and rare metals involved in electronics manufacture. It makes me long for some sort of metrics for recycling the way that cars must meet an average MPG standard.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:03 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: What are thinking!
posted by dirigibleman at 11:21 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

heh. I saw that, too, but since I'm quoting directly, I have to leave it alone. It's like two opposing (in this case) compulsive behaviors fighting each other for use of the body... FIX THE TYPO! EEEE! / NO. DIRECT QUOTE, ASSHOLE!
posted by taz at 11:39 AM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

taz: "I'm thinking maybe I need to give up this particular well-used, well-loved long-life item. o_0"
Having just read that page, I hope that you let go of that pressure cooker, buy a new one—this might be one place where buying new is the way to go.
posted by dancestoblue at 12:09 PM on December 11, 2011

Dancestoblue and taz:

Hey, I'd feel right at home in your places!

Was thinking about how my house was furnished the other day:

*6 bookshelves, computer desk, bed frame, wood file cabinet--DH built 'em

*sewing cabinet, kitchen table, sewing machines, rocker, TV stand, oak TV trays, 3 dressers, couch--thrift stores, along with lamps, kitchen machines, iron skillets,

*computers, flat screen, printers, vacuum cleaner--gifted or salvaged and revamped

We clean up, sand and revarnish, reupholster, and generally revamp. I like my home, and other people have complimented and commented how comfortable and individual it is.

I'm not a big believer in planned obsolescence.
posted by BlueHorse at 2:34 PM on December 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older Playing with both cats and language   |   Ubuntu jumps the shark? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments