Here’s my PPT on the documentary, Comprar, Tirar, Comprar, complete with links to videos and that fabulous website of the 114-year-old lightbulb! And following is the short essay version of some of the points I touched on during my presentation:
Comprar, Tirar, Comprar: The Consequences and Future of Planned Obsolescence
Cosima Dannoritzer’s 2011 documentary Comprar, tirar, comprar: La historia secreta de la obsolescencia programada provides insight into an economic ploy that affects not just consumers, but the entire planet. Though the roughly 50 minute film considers a wide range of cases and products, Dannoritzer’s documentary does not sacrifice depth for breadth. She follows a fairly straightforward narrative arc, first looking at what many consider to be the beginnings of planned obsolescence (during the 1930s as a response to the economic depression). She then focuses on a select number of examples of the process and real-world effects of planned obsolescence by looking into the limited lifespan of products such as such as lightbulbs, nylon, and Apple and other electronics. Finally, the documentary takes on a more optimistic tone and considers proponents of alternative economic practices, as well as showing ways in which savvy individual consumers can fight back.
One of the most poignant moments of the documentary is when Dannoritzer gives us insight into what happens to the “obsolete” products that have been tossed aside by first-world consumers. The film shows us a literal waste-land in Ghana where used electronics are dumped under the pretext of bridging the gap between Europe/America and third-world societies such as those found in Africa. Though there are laws in place that prohibit waste dumping, the computers and other electronics are shipped to Ghana as “second-hand” items, which fails to connote the fact that, unlike a worn-yet-usable pair of shoes, for example, these “used” electronics simply don’t work. We see footage of young children burning the casing off of electronic wires to get to the metal inside, which can be sold and repurposed. Due to this “e-waste,” as Dannoritzer labels it in a later documentary (The E-waste Tragedy, 2014), rivers are polluted and poor children submit themselves to toxic fumes in order to earn money to, paradoxically, survive. As these tragic visuals play out, Ghanian activist Mike Anane reminds us that these people are suffering from pollution that they had no hand creating.
Planned obsolescence leads to waste and relies on never-ending resources to keep up with never-ending economic growth. Though this futuristic optimism may have made some level of sense in the 30s, today’s society is extremely aware that resources are finite, and we are burning through them at an alarming rate. As the situation in Ghana demonstrates, the ecological footprint of first world countries in Europe and America is exceeding the planet’s capacity, as the physical consequences of these capitalist practices are far outreaching the geographical location of consumers, and even producers. While this “slow violence” (as Rob Nixon so aptly names it) is still hidden from the view of many capitalist consumers, the rate at which these products become obsolete and “useless” suggests that the first world will soon be feeling the effects of planned obsolescence on a much greater scale as our resources fail to keep up with production and the world runs out of space for the resulting trash. Even before these effects are felt, however, the images of trash fields in Ghana as a result of first-world dumping raises the more immediate question of how we can ever pay back our “ecological debt.”
In the end, the film takes a more hopeful turn and presents the ideas of several philosophers and everyday individuals that are fighting back against the system of planned obsolescence. People like French philosopher Serge Latouche have proposed the importance of completely re-thinking the system. In a world where “growth for growth’s sake” has become almost a given, Latouche puts forth the new model of “decrecimiento.” For him, the answer doesn’t even lie in the idea of sustainable development, as this still implies growth. Instead, it relies on working toward not having an ecological footprint that exceeds the planet’s surface. Others are working on a more individual scale to combat the effects of planned obsolescence. As the documentary shows, individuals who feel cheated out of quality products are taking companies like Apple to court, requiring them to legally change the longevity of their products. Other consumers are simply finding ways to get around the system of forced obsolescence and work together to provide free downloadable hacks to repair old technology.
In sum, Comprar, Tirar, Comprar raises issues that grow more and more relevant the longer we wait to react. This “secret history” of planned obsolescence has become far less secret, yet the issues still remain. In the year 2015, four years after the production of Dannoritzer’s documentary, are we any further along the road to changing the damaged relationship between the economy and the environment? On a small scale, as the film suggests, this answer is something like “slowly but surely, but we can still do more.” The pockets of resistance to forced obsolescence are growing as individual consumers are starting to find their own ways to repair and reuse rather than simply reject and re-purchase. In the end, as the framework of alterative economies grows, it’s hard not to be cautiously hopeful for the future.