Posts tagged open source ecology
The Open Source Object

The term "planned obsolescence" was supposedly coined by Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens in 1954 for a presentation in Minneapolis. However, a search onGoogle's Ngram tool, which tracks the prevalence of phrases in books over time, traces the first appearance of the expression to 1929. Stevens couched its use in different terms than it has come to be understood today: “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” He thought of planned obsolescence not as a set of design flaws time-delayed into the infrastructure of a product, but more of a marketing ploy meant to make the old versions look out-of-date. Car companies, with their yearly model changeovers, are masters at this; phone companies have aped their success at a cheaper price point.

In the era of software, executing planned obsolescence has become easier than ever. An operating system update pushed out to devices with little or no choice from users can savage functionality. The practice of "instilling desire in the buyer a little sooner than necessary" is now a centralized, push-button operation. These software manipulations are inextricably linked into a whole ecosystem of difficult-to-repair hardware built with proprietary fasteners, edge-to-edge screens, and finicky, expensive batteries. Recently, I wrote a post on this sad back-and-forth, as illustrated through designer Thomas Thwaites' attempt to build a toaster from scratch.

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Farm Hackin'

In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich took a detour from his usual research subject -- butterflies -- and wrote a book called The Population Bomb. As with many alarmist books, it was a bestseller, and quickly landed its previously obscure author on The Tonight Show. Ehrlich argued that the world was headed into a state of perilous scarcity, where an exploding population would overtax the planet's ability to produce fresh food and water. This led to a bet with economist Julian Simon, who posited that human's ability to innovate would always outsmart obstacles to growth. Like Malthusians before and since, Ehrlich was proven wrong, and paid up in the late nineties, despite a doubling of Earth's population in the meantime.

Scarcity is still a popular topic amongst both the libertarian, gold-bugging right and the organic, kombucha-brewing left. And it makes basic sense, right? American farmers, once the vast majority of the population, are at only 2% of the workforce now. Very few of us are directly involved in growing food. Less and less of our land is devoted to agriculture. And the land that is out there seems to be giving out, worn down by a century or more of highly productive monoculture. It seems only logical that the oil, the gas, and the infrastructure will give out one day, disrupted by plant diseases, climate change, water scarcities, and unsustainable demand. 

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